In Lieu of Flowers
Remembering Debra Murrell
January 25, 1959 - September 9, 2023
If you've routinely been following along on the lakelandtn.gov/news page these past few months, you'll know that every Monday (sometimes Tuesday) I put out a weekly update on City activities; yet somehow, it seems to have been missed this week. It was not intentional, it was not forgotten, I just have not had it in me. You see, we here at City Hall, like all of you reading this, are human. We are people. We have feelings, emotions, ups and downs, and life events to content with even as we work tirelessly to serve this great City of Lakeland. And this week has just been a hard one.
Last Saturday morning, City Hall, our Lakeland staff, our residential and commercial development community, and all of the City of Lakeland lost a dedicated and faithful servant. Debra Jones Murrell, who was an employee of the City of Lakeland from June 29, 1998 until her death on Saturday, lost her final battle with cancer. While we all are reeling from this set back to our operations, our office, and our hearts, we also celebrate that her struggle has ended and she is finally able to be at rest, in power.
I've struggled with the best way to remember and honor her commitment and service, and decided that the best way was to offer you all an insight into what Debra meant to us here at City Hall. These reflections are presented in no particular order.
Rhonda Fink, Community Services Representative
Rhonda has been with the City for over ten years, and of course developed a very close relationship with Ms. Debra (both of them also worked together, at times, at Dillards).
Rhonda said, "Debra told me, the only way to keep a man now days was to set the hook, reel them in, and hit them in the head with a boat paddle so they would stay."
Hmmm.. words of wisdom, I would say? I'll let you decide.
Sue Lipscomb, HR Generalist
Debra struggled with cancer for many years, going from treatments to remission, and we all noticed her health declining rapidly at the beginning of this summer. During that time, Debra worked from home and Ms. Sue filled in as our "Recorder Pro Tempore" due to Ms. Debra's absence.
Sue remembers telling Ms. Debra, "Well, if I'm filling in for you, I'm going to have to up my wardrobe game!"
Ms. Debra certainly had style!
Andrew Fisher, (soon-to-be) Parks and Recreation Director
Andrew has only been with the City a short while, but he fondly remembers how Ms. Debra (whose office was across from his own) would play her music during the day while she worked. "She always had great music, and I'll miss that," Andrew tells me.
Victoria Stubblefield, Accounting Manager
Victoria joined the City of Lakeland in May of this year, while Ms. Debra had been working from home since late June. Victoria reflects, "Debra encompassed elegance, professionalism, & a fun-loving spirit. She welcomed & embraced me with affection and warmth. She & I would have no doubt been life-long friends. May her spirit be at rest in the loving arms of God."
Emily Harrell, City Engineer
Having been with the City of Lakeland for over 14 years, Ms. Emily knew Ms. Debra quite well. Emily reflects, "She was an expert on all things holistic like vitamin supplements. I will always remember her green juices she drank on the regular!
"She called me superwoman because of all the various hats I wear at work, and we joked with her about how much stuff she had in her office and she admitted she was a hoarder. (Yet) she somehow had it organized because she could always find what we were looking for!
"She loved her kids and talked about them all the time."
Bill Watkins, Wastewater Technician
Mr. Bill is another long-time City employee, and he reflected on the good-natured and fun relationship he had with Ms. Debra. They would joke around with one another, and Bill remembers getting "in trouble" with Ms. Debra one time (*at least one time...). You see, Ms. Debra had some ink pens "stored" in a garbage can under her desk. Bill thought this was a trash can, and threw them out. As Ms. Emily mentioned above, Ms. Debra liked to keep things... so was not impressed by Mr. Bill's cleaning efforts! I think it's safe to say he never made that mistake again...
Alex Barthol, Staff Planner
Another "newer" member of Lakeland's team, Mr. Alex did not have as long to work with Ms. Debra; however, he did reflect that he enjoyed her good humor and spirit, and the times they would spend together working on permit applications and with the applicants.
Pete Chimpouras, (retired) Finance Clerk
Mr. Pete officially retired from the City of Lakeland at the end of June, after about a 15-year career working with us. I did not get a chance to speak directly with him about his reflections on Ms. Debra, but I know that the two of them had a very special friendship! When I was Finance Director, I knew that if I needed Mr. Pete for something and couldn't find him - I simply had to look in Ms. Debra's office! Beyond that, they took walks each and every day around the path at City Hall Park. If this older Greek man and distinguished African-American woman could get along so well, it provided hope for us all in this divisive world we live in!
Katrina Shields, Code Enforcement Officer
Ms. Katrina reflects that Ms. Debra was one of those special people who simply got along with everyone. Similar to Ms. Sue, Ms. Katrina certainly noticed Debra's style! She would often remark to Ms. Debra, "I'd break my neck if I were wearing those heels!"
Paul Luker, Planning Director
Mr. Paul is another newer member of our City Hall staff, and was Ms. Debra's most recent direct supervisor. Mr. Paul remembers that Ms. Debra was always in a pleasant mood, no matter what was going on with her health or in her life. Like so many others, he remembers how neat and professionally dressed she always was, but he also respected that she knew and would remember all of Lakeland's development history, and could find any file he was ever looking for.
Mr. Paul also recalls, "I was always the best boss she ever had (unless one of her former bosses was around)." That's funny Paul... she would say the same thing to me!
Matt Brown, Public Works Director
It's often this week been the hardest for those who knew Ms. Debra the longest, such as Mr. Matt who has worked with her for these past 22 years. He writes, "I’m not very good with the stories but she was my 'Tina Turner,' we’ve had each other's backs for over 22 years. I’d go to Dillards just to go see her when I went to the mall every chance I had. We had lots of fun 'gossip' about the craziness we survived throughout the years and now I can’t even process that she is no longer with me." Our hearts remain with you, Matt.
Josh Thompson, ITS Director
When I asked for reflections on Ms. Debra, and her time and influence on all of us here at City Hall, Mr. Josh "understood the assignment" (as the kids say). He writes:
When I arrived at Lakeland City Hall 2008, I was quickly greeted, led to my workspace, and introduced to my coworker in the adjoining space. The two things I immediately noticed about Debra were that her fashion sense was on another level and that her workspace was more spacious than mine. To this day, I’ve met many people with larger, nicer offices, but I’m not sure I’ve met anyone whose wardrobe was worthy of comparison.
I had just left a comfortable position, in a brand-new building, with another suburb to come to Lakeland. Now, I was sharing an old, dusty converted single-room office space with 8-10 people. The room was crowded, and, at times, it felt like staff were stacked on top of each other. Luckily, Debra and I shared the unique ability to talk for long periods of time. We would often express, comically, how fortunate we were to have such pleasant neighbors. Over time, the theme that started as a joke just sort of stuck and she would eventually refer to me simply as “Neighbor.” Not Josh, or Joshua, or anything else. Just “Neighbor.”
Our conversations would cover a wide range of topics, but family was always a recurring theme. At the time, though, our perspectives on family were quite different. She would share the proud accomplishments of her children and I, single and with no children, would mostly respond with some version of “That sounds great, but I am never getting married or having kids. Ever.” So, naturally, in 2010, roughly 18 months after boldly proclaiming my resistance, I got married. In 2012, our son arrived. Eventually, I would tell my own stories of children’s milestones, and first days at school, and holiday family gatherings. And every time, Debra, without fail, would respond with an anecdote about “a former, slightly outspoken ‘neighbor’ who would make bold claims about avoiding marriage. Didn’t want kids, he said. Whatever happened to him?”
My personal memories of Debra are and will be connected with thoughts of good neighbors and of family. And, of course, her impeccable fashion and style. I hope sharing a few of these demonstrates the impact Debra had with people in general, but specifically with her Lakeland family.
Me, City Manager
I'm not ashamed to admit it; some of these made me tear up. Some of these reflections made me laugh. And all of these captured the spirit and essence of our friend, our coworker, and our beloved Debra Murrell. It is not often that we have a chance to meet someone that special to us all, and such an integral part of what makes City Hall just seem to work.
As is the nature of life, we will go on. We will have to fill her role at City Hall with another person, but we can never fill her place in our hearts.
When I think of Ms. Debra, I think back to when I first starting working at City Hall back in the fall of 2019. I started as a contractor, hired by Shane Horn (City Manager at the time) to "clean up the books" and "get ready for the audit." What started as temporary became permanent when I truly got to know the other staff at City Hall, and I applied for and was hired then as the Finance and Human Resources Director.
Now - Finance and Planning do not often intersect on a daily basis; however, as I mentioned above, there were times when I'd have to go "find" my staff - Pete. And I discovered quickly that his hiding spot was Ms. Debra's office. She, too, on occasion would come down the Finance hallway looking for Mr. Pete.
A few months after I started working at Lakeland full time, I finally - after much poking and prodding from my wife - and after a cruise in January 2020 (no, we did not bring COVID back with us) - put up the first personal photograph in my office; of me and my wife Cristi. For context, yes - my wife is African-American. Ms. Debra came by one day soon thereafter and said, "Ohhhhh.... is this your wife?" Now - I don't know about you - but men: if you have a photograph of yourself in a "couple shot" with another woman, please ensure that either a) it is your wife or b) you have no wife! Needless to say, from that moment on Ms. Debra knew all she needed to know about how I may view her, her worth, and her value to the City.
Fast forward to last Friday. After working primarily from home the past two months, Debra's son Jerrick brought her work laptop and files back to City Hall and let me know that his mother's time with us was nearing an end. Heartbroken, I followed him back to Debra's house (with permission, of course), met with her and her family, and prayed for them all. Jerrick told me, "thank you for taking care of my mom. You were her favorite boss!" Take THAT, Paul!
The next morning, she passed away.
My hope, belief, faith, and trust is that Ms. Debra is now resting eternally in the arms of a loving and gracious God, where cancer can no longer eat at her body. But I recall her strength, her spirit, and her power - because while it may have eaten at her body, it never got a morcel of her spirit! And for that - we all thank God.
Rest in Power, Debra. Until we meet again.
Michael Walker, September 15, 2023