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Dolly's daddy, Eugene Murphy, made his way, with a helping hand and a warm smile

LARGO — On any given day, you could catch a smile and wave from Eugene Murphy as he bicycled down Seminole Boulevard.

He might have been on his way to clean out a shed for a friend, stock merchandise at a gas station or sweep up a bar. He might have been on his way to do a favor for you.

He might have been taking his chihuahua, Dolly, to get her nails clipped by the local groomer.

You definitely would have seen Dolly — his "daughter" — riding in her black milk crate tied to the frame of his green bike.

To friends, family and acquaintances, that's how it always was — Gene and Dolly, an inseparable pair that belonged to their community. Some people might have considered Gene a transient, but it was a label that made no sense to his friends.

"He wasn't one of those homeless panhandlers that use a dog to get money," said Brenda Johnson, a friend who hired Gene to help her around the house. "He loved that dog, and he wasn't homeless."

Gene and Dolly did have a home. If at any time they didn't, they had a community of people willing to give them one.

That community lost Gene Tuesday night when he and Dolly rode across Seminole Boulevard in the dark and were hit by a car.

In an instant, Gene was taken and Dolly left behind.

Police are still investigating the accident. The community is left to mourn the loss of a man who, without ever counting the cost, always offered a helping hand and a kind smile.

• • •

Janelle Musgrave, owner of A Happy Tails Pet Grooming in Largo, often welcomed a visit from Gene and Dolly.

Whether it was for a quick clip of the toenails for Dolly or just a hello, Musgrave never felt too busy to see Gene, 47.

"He would just stop by to say hi, and when he came by, you wouldn't roll your eyes," she said. "He knew not to take up your time. And he never asked me for a dime."

Matt Parsons, a customer at One More Time Bar on Walsingham Road, said he remembers a genuine and easygoing man who always offered to fix what was broken or clean what was dirty.

"He was just a pleasant person to be around," Parsons said.

No matter where he was, Gene always offered to sweep, wash dishes, paint or pitch in — often without expecting anything in return.

"If you asked him to do something, he wouldn't hesitate to help somebody," said Gene's best friend, Jaime Loughlin, who lives in a mobile home park off Seminole Boulevard.

They would often take odd jobs together, like fixing roofs or painting lines on a gas station parking lot.

"I was the Skipper and he was like Gilligan," Loughlin said.

Loughlin says now he waits at home, still expecting the daily visit with Gene that will no longer come.

• • •

Even when he was younger and living in Maryland, the place where he grew up, Eugene Murphy, one of four brothers, was content to do what he could to survive.

"I would have preferred if he had picked a different lifestyle," said George Murphy, Gene's oldest brother, who lives in Lynchburg, Va. "He picked the one that was right for him."

Since young adulthood, Gene had taken odd jobs where he could. At one point, he joined his brother Patrick in waterproofing basements in Maryland.

He spent some time in Arizona and California. Not being tied down to a family, it was easy for him to move around.

"If he found the urge to get up and go, he just left," Patrick said.

Around the mid 1990s, he landed in the Tampa Bay area, at first spending a few years in Tampa working for a carpenter.

Eventually, he landed in Largo, where he continued to bounce from one job to the next. This time, though, a community of locals embraced him, and he embraced them.

• • •

Carl Schlemmer Sr. clearly remembers the day he gave Gene and Dolly a home.

About a year ago, Gene knocked on the door of the 139th Avenue warehouse operated by Schlemmer. Gene had just gotten kicked out of his last place — a small shelter he had made himself behind a furniture store, using discarded wood and cardboard.

Unkempt and dirty, yet cheerful, Gene told Schlemmer he was looking for work and a place to stay. Schlemmer was put off, but the little dog nibbling at his ankles made an impression.

"I felt sorry for the dog more than for him," he said.

Soon, Gene was cutting the grass for Schlemmer and staying in a loft inside the warehouse. He had everything he needed: a bed, a shower and a little refrigerator. He would wash his clothes and hang them out to dry along the side of the building. Schlemmer gave him a small television and a video cassette player. Gene would watch used tapes he bought for less than a dollar.

He had a key and came and went as he pleased, but he always followed the rules Schlemmer had laid out:

No drugs.

No other people staying in the loft.

No alcohol.

Outside of the warehouse, most who knew Gene knew he liked his beer. But by every account, the drinking never got Gene into trouble. He had no run-ins with the law. Schlemmer had no complaints.

"Life wasn't easy on him, but life's not easy on anybody," said friend Lenny Cold.

• • •

Memories of Gene live all over the community. Musgrave has the Christmas cards Gene gave her over the years. His friend Brenda Johnson has the memories of him dropping by her house with muffins from Winn-Dixie. Loughlin thinks of the bike rides and visits to the park with Gene.

Gene didn't have much, and he didn't leave much behind.

But he did leave Dolly, who now lives with her Uncle Patrick in Clearwater.

Patrick said Dolly is still the same feisty dog that guarded that green bicycle.

Every time she hears a car door slam, she barks. Maybe she's guarding her new owner.

Or maybe she's calling out to Gene.

Dolly's daddy, Eugene Murphy, made his way, with a helping hand and a warm smile 03/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, March 6, 2011 10:32pm]
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