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Engraver Cecil Murray of Plant City etches lives in stone, such as Tampa police Roll Call of Honor

When the call came, Cecil Murray didn't know about the early morning deaths of Tampa police Officers David Curtis and Jeffrey Kocab. He didn't know about the manhunt for suspected killer Dontae Morris or the growing reward for his capture.

The Plant City engraver was at Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga., engraving 500 names on the Ranger Monument.

"Guess what?" Murray's wife said over the phone. "Two officers have been killed."

"I guess I know what I'll be doing," he said.

Murray, 56, engraved the first batch of names on the Tampa Police Department's Roll Call of Honor memorial when it was installed in 1997. By now, he's sandblasted 31 names into the black granite.

"I do it as a courtesy," he said.

On the Thursday after the police officers' deaths, Murray arrived at the memorial in front of the department's downtown headquarters with his stencil—arranged and printed at home—and portable sandblasting kit. Despite the crowd, he tried to focus on his work.

Measure the space. Place the stencil. Blast.

Sand swirled around him.

It was the first time Murray engraved the monument without the families of the fallen there watching. Still, their absence did little to curb his anxiety.

"I was a nervous wreck that I would get something crooked," he said.

Hours later, the unveiling ceremony was somber. Kocab's wife, Sara, approached the monument, pulling the stencil away from the stone. Kelly Curtis followed. Her young son peeled the words "Officer David L. Curtis" away from the granite. Later, family members snapped photos with the monument and ran their fingers over the letters.

By then, the man who set the worst moments of their lives in stone was long gone.

• • •

Murray's Monument Co. sits on an easy-to-miss dirt road in Plant City. Horses roam in a pasture in front of a two-story house. A run-down barn rests off to the side. Closer to Murray's workshop, dozens of granite monuments scatter the ground. It's Murray's graveyard of blanks, mistakes and repossessions.

Murray has owned the business since 1977, when he took over for his father. He grew up down the street on a property he still owns, but doesn't have the heart to sell. His three daughters live nearby.

"I wouldn't know how to live anywhere else," he said.

Most of the time, Murray loves his job. No two monuments — or days — are ever the same. The majority of his business, he said, is engraving fundraiser bricks for churches and schools and, recently, the "Walk of Fame" in Ybor City. He also works on headstones and benches.

Grieving families, he said, are the hardest part of the job.

"It's kind of like a funeral director," he said.

Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers come into his office, take a chair and bawl.

Murray remembers when the family of Jennifer Odom, a 12-year-old murdered in Pasco County in 1993, came to his shop. He decided to donate a monument to the family. Four cars of relatives showed up to talk details. Many of them sobbed through the meeting.

"You have to kind of harden yourself to it," he said. "It's just hard sometimes."

• • •

Sitting at his computer, Murray pulls up the program he uses to design every monument. He's made the headstones for his family members buried in Tampa and his wife's family who rest in a small graveyard in Thonotosassa.

He opens file after file, talking about the challenges of each project. There's a memorial for a dog named Zeppelin, a monument to the unborn made for a church and a headstone filled with etched symbols: a football, a chow dog, a silhouette of Elvis.

"I kind of like to personalize them," Murray said, "even though it takes a little more work on my end."

Recently, he said, business has been hit by the recession. Families are downsizing their memorials. Instead of an elaborate funeral — one complete with a headstone — people are choosing cremation. Murray, who charges on commission and completion, said some customers can't afford to claim their finished monuments.

The Roll Call of Honor memorial, however, is different. After the first commission, he hasn't charged a penny.

"It's hard for the family," he said. "I don't expect them to pay me anything for doing that. It's more of an honor."

Times staff writer Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report. Sarah Hutchins can be reached at (813) 661-2443 or [email protected]

Engraver Cecil Murray of Plant City etches lives in stone, such as Tampa police Roll Call of Honor 07/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, July 12, 2010 7:19am]
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