LAURINBURG — Though his name remains stenciled on brick, plaster, and concrete throughout the city, Eugene himself has already gone.
Part mascot and part menace, Eugene Munley drew the affection — and sometimes the ire — of nearly everyone who set foot downtown. Shoppers, business owners, and those out for an afternoon of socializing never quite knew what to expect from him as he strolled down Main Street with his crown of dreadlocks swaying.
He died at Scotland Memorial Hospital on Monday after being found ill with pneumonia.
At 62, he had spent the last third of his life on the streets, but it would be difficult to consider a man who had a friend in almost everyone he met to be truly without a home.
“Gene was our buddy; he was our friend,” said Tammy Campbell. “He would crack you up one minute and tear you down the next.”
While styling hair at a Railroad Street beauty salon on Thursday, Campbell recalled Eugene stopping in to chat on a near-daily basis.
“He had a funny way of putting forth his wisdom, but Eugene was wise,” she said. “He’d say as long as I owe you, you will never be broke. Now that was Eugene.”
Laurinburg’s unofficial town crier, Eugene never came up short of knowledge about local happenings.
“He was good people, very educated — you might not think so, but he was,” said Michael Flowers, who works with Campbell. “He could tell you everything going on in Laurinburg.
“Eugene was like one of my kids. He’s going to be missed, I’ll tell you.”
Eugene grew up on Anne Street not far from I. Ellis Johnson school, where he excelled in athletics. According to his daughter, Patrice Blue, Eugene lived an ordinary married life with her mother Patricia until shortly after his discharge from the Army.
“He was a kind, normal father that took care of his family every day just like everybody else,” she said.
But even after Eugene was diagnosed with schizophrenia and his marriage disintegrated, Blue continued to enjoy a close relationship with her father, keeping track of him through his many friends and benefactors and talking with him regularly.
The accommodations offered by friends and family members always proved too small to contain Eugene, who at one point made a habit of sleeping in the post office.
“Sometimes I saw him and I cried, I really couldn’t take it,” Blue said. “But I knew that’s what he wanted and that he lived like that because he chose to.”
Despite his circumstances, he played a role in her life and in the lives of his grandchildren.
“He knew everything about me, everything about my kids: their birthdays, their ages,” said Blue. “Just like everybody’s dad would give their grandchildren something for their birthday, even if it wasn’t but $5.”
Jim Willis, owner of Shirt Tales and former owner of Firestone, recalled that Eugene’s home was wherever he considered safe enough to store his most prized possessions: a Bible and the American flag once draped over the casket at his father’s funeral.
“He had this sense of style about him,” Willis said. “Even though his clothes were all donated from Helping Hand and stuff like that, he would color coordinate.”
Rhonda Sellers, an employee of Scotland Drug, pointed out Eugene’s “condo” in a parking lot off of McKay Street: a now-vacant bench and a collection of stuffed animals and toy cars hung around an electric meter.
“I don’t have anything bad to say about him at all,” she said. “He was funny, he would say, you know, quirky stuff. All of a sudden he would just belt out ’ you ain’t nothing but a hound dog’ and stuff like that.”
On some level, the story of Eugene’s later life is a testament to the kindness and generosity that are hallmarks of a small, close-knit community. He often depended on the largesse of those he met for a warm place to rest in the winter, a bite to eat, or even to provide a destination address for his monthly government checks — and an honest hand to transfer a quarter of the amount each week.
But no one viewed him as an entirely pitiable figure, and it is unlikely that he would have let them.
“You couldn’t judge that book by the cover, not with him,” said Sonya Jones, the proprietor of Sonya’s Florist on Main Street.
“He was happy, he really was; he didn’t complain. He didn’t ever come in like oh poor old Gene, he was good.”
Jones said that she and others found themselves looking after Eugene, and keeping a few dollars on hand in case they encountered him. The consideration, she said, paid dividends.
“One lady told me, if Eugene told you that the berries were red, you’d better get your basket,” Jones said. “Because everything he said, the way that he said it may be one thing, but there would be some truth to it. If he told you, it was true.”
Eugene’s antics, recalled fondly as good-natured, although in some cases embarrassing, are the stuff of legend: proclaiming, in front of a District Court judge, that the court reporter was pregnant with his love child or, in another instance, goading a business owner, who had banned him from his property, by repeatedly stepping forward and back over the property line.
As things do between friends, the jokes went both ways. One February, Frances Willis tried to track down Eugene only to learn he was in jail.
“I mailed him this Valentine’s card and I addressed it Eugene Munley, Esquire,” she said. “From that point on, everybody at the jail called him squire, according to Eugene. He knew what it meant, and he was honored that I called him that.”
Harley Norris spoke about Eugene with a knot in his throat, born of 20 years of respect for a man who lived life on his own terms.
“Everybody’s got some sort of Eugene story, whether it was that scary old mean man or he stood in front of my door and protected it,” he said. “Every town has those individuals that hopefully make us realize how blessed we are to have what’s called a normal life, and hopefully along the way we help those less fortunate than ourselves.”
Preston Jackson, a former sheriff’s deputy and current co-proprietor of 215 on Main, recalled his first encounter with Eugene, and Eugene’s advice to get out of Scotland County. But Eugene revised his opinion of the new deputy after Jackson respectfully declined his request for food, telling him that he may just make it after all.
Perhaps fittingly, Jackson’s final dealing with Eugene last week before leaving for the holiday weekend was to provide him with a meal.
“Eugene knew exactly what was going on, and I just think that it was God’s way of putting one of his angels here to see how other people deal with it,” Jackson said.
“It’s going to be a sad thing not to see him, but hopefully he’s in high places now.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.