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Finding his faith abroad

When Bryan McMurray arrived at the University in the fall of 1970, he had no idea his registration with Disability Resource and Educational Services (DRES) would eventually lead him to Jesus. That was the last thing on the 18-year-old’s mind. McMurray was too busy partying and hitting the mat as a second stringer on the University wrestling team to think about praising God.

The year he enrolled at the University, he was one of 38 blind and low-vision students registered through DRES. Joe Konitzki, the first associate director of DRES, processed McMurray’s paperwork before he enrolled in classes and remembers him quite well.

“He was a very gutsy, sharp — and I say this kindly and nicely — aggressive student,” Konitzki said about his first impressions of McMurray.

McMurray now works as the vision and hearing specialist at DRES, making sure that blind, deaf and hard of hearing students have the resources they need.

Through spending any time with him, one would realize Konitski’s description fits the 55-year-old former wrestler’s persona quite accurately. He walks with the swagger of an athlete and his posture is always erect, never slumping when he sits. He never passes up a moment to give a shout out to God.

Back in the ‘70s, students with disabilities normally went through DRES before being admitted into the University. Today, they register with the unit on a volunteer basis only. McMurray remembers Tim Nugent, who founded DRES, and his staff constantly checking in on him and the other students. But he saw no need for the extra attention.

“I wanted to be like every other kid, and the average kid didn’t have anybody watching them,” McMurray said. “We joked and we used to call them ‘Big Brother’ and say, ‘They’re watching us.’ I didn’t always like that. I tried to get away from it.”

But this is not to say he was unappreciative, either. It takes a closer look into McMurray’s personal journey to understand the source of his independence, his outgoing personality, his rebellion against “Big Brother” and the circumstances that led him to the University and eventually to Christ. McMurray’s story is about an Illini who benefited from DRES in the most unconventional way.

Born without vision, he let confidence lead the way

McMurray and his twin brother, Blair, were born two-months premature in Chicago, Ill., on Sept. 22, 1953. Doctors put both of them in an incubator where they were overexposed to oxygen. Blair’s sight was significantly affected, but he can drive. McMurray was left permanently blind, though he has never wondered about life as a seeing person.

“I never dwelled on it. I never missed it,” McMurray said. Nor did he ever feel being blind was a limitation. If he wanted to ride a bike, McMurray pedaled until he learned. Swimming? Not a problem. He did that, too.

Around the age of nine, McMurray gave wrestling a try and excelled quickly. He was recognized by Sports Illustrated magazine for his prowess on the mat while at Brother Rice Catholic High School in Chicago, Ill. The honor was bittersweet.

“I felt that I really didn’t deserve it,” McMurray said. It wasn’t that he wasn’t confident in his abilities; he just believed there were more worthy athletes who could have been chosen. Then again, McMurray understood why the magazine picked him. “Well … you know … blindness makes a story.”

However, his confidence and bravado weren’t limited to the mat. McMurray’s friends describe him as the quintessential ladies’ man. Whether they were black or white, blind or not, his tastes had no limits.

“Women loved that guy,” recalls Wan Henderson, a close childhood friend of his. “They just gravitated toward him. Most guys kind of have to work at it. He didn’t have to work at it at all.”

McMurray said his mother and father influenced his confidence and outgoing personality.

“My parents taught me that you gotta live in a visual world,” he remembers. “You gotta make it. You can’t expect the world to come to you and take care of you.”

However, when it came to race, his parents held the prejudices many whites felt about blacks. Racial epithets like the N-word were commonly heard around his house, but McMurray refused to allow such language to enter his vocabulary.

“They knew I wouldn’t say it,” McMurray said. “I made a conscious choice in my heart. I told them, and I would fight them.”

His parents were OK with him hanging with black kids. But McMurray’s playing beau to black females stretched his father’s racial tolerance too far.

He recalls one evening back in high school when his father snatched the phone from him after realizing he was talking to a black girlfriend. His father went on a racially tinged tangent, bemoaning his son for his choice in women. McMurray sat through the rant quietly. After his father was done, he responded with, “Right o-o-o-n, Brotha.”

“Then he smacked me,” he remembers. “But I took it because it was worth it.”

Cursing like a sailor one minute, but sharing the gospel the next

McMurray came to the University in the fall of 1970. He said McMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., offered him a wrestling scholarship, but he turned it down. Services for blind students were better at the University, he felt. And besides, “I didn’t want the pressure of wresting on a scholarship,” McMurray added.

He earned bachelor’s degrees in sociology and German, but he likes to recall what he really spent much of his time doing while on campus: “There were two things I majored in: women and wrestling.”

But McMurray’s days as a jock and ladies’ man began to fade in his last year of college.

Nugent, director of DRES at the time, was preparing to send some of his students to study abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France. It was just one of Nugent’s many efforts to maximize his students’ scholastic experience at the University and to prove to everyone that students with disabilities were as capable as anyone else. McMurray heard about Nugent’s initiative and asked if he could be the group’s representative for the blind student population.

“He was an outstanding example of what a blind person could do,” Nugent said of his decision to choose McMurray.

When he learned he would be on the trip, McMurray thought he would spend his time mastering the nuances of the French language. The cross-cultural experiences he looked forward to the most were evenings out with the local women, sipping French wine. He certainly wasn’t expecting a Christian transformation.

But that’s exactly what happened. When McMurray arrived at his language school in Aix-en-Provence, France, he met a British Columbia native also studying French, Joanna McMurray (formerly Fichtner), his second wife. Joanna remembers McMurray as the loudest one in the group, the life of the party, always cheerful.

After a few weeks, they both were in the school lounge one day, and she asked McMurray, “What makes you so happy?”

“I don’t know, man. Just happy, you know,” he responded gleefully. “I’m just a happy guy.” Unsatisfied with his response, Joanna probed further, asking for a more concrete answer, which produced no response.

So she told McMurray the source of her joy and happiness came from God and that she was a Christian.

“I think he was intrigued by that,” Joanna remembers. “Well, part of him was intrigued, and the other part of him was turned off. He actually wanted not to have that much to do with me after he found out that I was a Christian.”

“I think he thought I would ruin his fun,” Joanna said. She was right.

“I was ready to leave, man. I was like, ‘Oh no,’” McMurray said. “She’s gonna ask me to give up my women, forget it.”

But he didn’t leave.

In fact, he started asking Joanna more questions about God, and from time to time, McMurray accompanied her to church. By the time his study abroad experience ended, he returned to the University a changed man.

Continuing down the faithful road

Not everything changed about McMurray when he turned his life over to the Lord. While he was still outgoing and made himself known to everyone he met, his affection toward people intensified. He stopped cursing around people and started sharing the Gospel with them instead.

One of the first people with whom McMurray shared his new-found faith was Sandy Weller, one of his childhood friends from Chicago. He would call and tell her about his church involvement on campus, his Braille Bibles and the spiritual transformation he experienced in France.

This God-praising, testifying McMurray on the other side of the phone caught her off guard.

“He was living such a different kind of life,” she said. “He just never talked about stuff like that (before).” Weller didn’t talk much about God and faith, either. But eventually she turned her life over to God and credits McMurray for helping her to do so.

After graduating from the University in 1975, McMurray headed off to the University of Texas at Austin where he earned a master’s degree. When he wasn’t in class, he and his other Christian friends would walk the campus evangelizing and sharing the Word with anyone who would listen.

One of the people with whom he partnered was Tim Martindale, his roommate at the time at the University of Texas. McMurray was the whistling, cheerful guy with the walking cane that everyone knew of, Martindale recalls. And when people forgot who he was, he said he’d use McMurray as a reference.

“If you ever mention that blind guy that walks and sings, you know … that’s my roommate,” Martindale would say.

“Oh, now I know who you are,” the person would reply. “So I was sort of known by him,” Martindale added.

McMurray has been working at DRES since 1994. When he’s not helping blind students secure Braille textbooks or making sure deaf students have translators for class, he’s chairing University committees that deal with special-needs issues or guest-lecturing in classes about disability issues. And every Sunday he and his family worship at Covenant Fellowship Church.

Looking back on that day he asked Nugent to join the study-abroad group in France, McMurray can’t help but think that God had a hand in it some way or another.

“Mr. Nugent didn’t know he was sending me to France to find the Lord.” McMurray said. “That’s the last thing he would have done. He just thought he was promoting this program to send people with disabilities to France.”

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