The congregation is small in size but big in presence, and he stands in the back. As the chords of “Amazing Grace” swell, his arms rise above his head and his closed eyes turn upward. On any given Sunday, Tommy Purcell, 51, can be found swaying with the music, charged by its power.
The hands he holds high are a carpenter’s hands, calloused and weathered, rough like the sandpaper in the toolbox he totes between houses surrounding the Elon University campus as a maintenance director for the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity house. But they are also hands that once tilted beer after beer and raised joint after joint to his lips. They are hands that have been wrapped around liquor bottles then steering wheels then jail bars. They are hands that later lay limp by his side in a hospital bed, yellowed and bleeding at the tips.
As the hymn lyrics fade into the recesses of the Greater Love World Outreach Center, he sits and buries his face in his hands, clearly lost in retrospection.
A rough beginning
Purcell was 8 years old the first time he got drunk. He snuck a liquor bottle under the porch of his home in Tampa, Fla., while his parents were hosting a party. He emerged tipsy and confused, and his parents laughed. His knee still bears a scar from that day.
But Purcell didn’t always live with his parents. His biological father and mother separated when he was a year old, and his grandmother became his guardian. When his grandfather got sick, he was sent to a foster home until his mother remarried and regained custody.
By 13, Purcell was making regular trips from the inner city to the Tampa countryside to drink beer with his friends. He was uprooted, though, right before entering high school. His stepfather got into some legal trouble and moved his family to North Carolina. After a few months, they settled in Burlington.
At Southern Alamance High School, Purcell ran with an older crowd. He continued drinking, started smoking marijuana on a regular basis and began experimenting with hallucinogens and amphetamines. But the most dangerous habit he developed was driving while drunk, and he soon found himself in court. The judge told him to enlist in the Air Force, and he did. He was 19.
While stationed at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, he met a woman from New York.
“There were a lot of drugs around there,” Purcell said. “She went hard like I did.”
Not long after she became pregnant, Purcell was honorably discharged for positive urinary analysis, but it “should’ve been dishonorable (discharge),” he said.
He married the woman and remained in the Goldsboro area. His first daughter, Kristyne, was born in September 1982, when he was 21.
His marriage didn’t last, though. After the divorce, his ex-wife scooped the 2-year-old toddler into her arms and headed to New York, leaving Purcell with an empty house.
As two left his life, one came in. His brother, who had also struggled with drugs and alcohol, came to stay with him in Goldsboro. After about a year, he, too, enlisted in the Air Force and left Purcell by himself.
“My brother filled the void of my little girl,” Purcell said. “After he left, I started drinking more and using drugs again.”
Against all odds
Purcell soon moved back to Burlington, and his drinking habits intensified. His legal record grew longer and more dismal with each DUI and drug charge, and he grew exceedingly familiar with the Alamance County Jail.
On a fateful night in October 1986, Purcell became the object of a high-speed car chase. Reckless and intoxicated, he fled the police and the 13 substance-related charges against him. His truck flipped, engulfing Purcell in a rain of glass and a haze of smoke. The police screeched to a halt and pulled Purcell out of his overturned vehicle through the shattered windshield. As they dragged him away from the wreckage, the truck exploded, generating a wave of heat and debris that bowled Purcell and the officers to the ground. They regained their bearings, and Purcell anticipated his arrest.
“I had 13 charges against me. Drinking and driving, running from the law, possession, all kinds of things,” he said. “But they told me, ‘You’re lucky to be alive. Just go home.’”
What would have amounted in a felony resulted only in the revocation of his driver’s license. At 25 years old, he had about 15 DUI charges and four DUI convictions to his name.
Another woman soon caught his eye. After dating her for several years, Purcell remarried and became a father for the second time in 1992.
“God put those little girls into my life at times just enough to slow me down,” he said. “(Becoming a father) didn’t stop my drinking, but it would make me a homebody drunk instead of running to the bars.”
When his second daughter, Lenzie, turned 3 years old, his drinking habits worsened. Nearly every venture behind the steering wheel lengthened his legal record. He stumbled in and out of court and in and out of jail. His wife left him, toting their daughter behind her. In his anguish, he turned to cocaine.
A decade in the dark
By 1998, his legal record was far too long for the county judicial system to handle. A felony DUI that year landed him in prison for the first time, marking the start of a decade-long dance with the federal authorities that would eventually cost him his desire to live.
“Back in high school, I was known as crazy, and I thought that if I was going to be in Alamance County, I’d have to live up to that reputation,” Purcell said. “Every time I got out of prison, I’d go to rehab and I’d be serious about staying sober. But then it would come time to go home and I’d mess up.”
The smell of alcohol began to waft from his pores, and he was fired because of it. The loss of his contracting job meant a loss of income and a loss of self-respect. His older daughter, who had been working as a registered nurse in Arizona, moved back to North Carolina to help him out. He pushed her away, moved into a powerless trailer home and then into a shed in the woods. For years, he hid from the world and from himself.
“I hated the mirror, I hated that rascal,” Purcell said. “I didn’t bathe for weeks at a time, I didn’t brush my teeth. It was dark, real dark.”
I set that beer down and I got on my knees. I said, ‘God, please help me. If you’ll take the desire away, I’ll do the rest’ -Tommy Purcell, maintenance director at Kappa Alpha Order fraternity house
“A drunk knows how to drink even without a job,” Purcell said. “He just does.”
A noise ordinance violation on Dec. 26, 2008 landed Purcell in the county jail for the last time. He got drunk within hours of his release, beginning the descent into a stupor that would last for days. Beer was the first thing he picked up in the morning and the last thing he set down at night. An open can stood vigilantly on his bedside table, strategically positioned to battle sleep’s sobering effects.
“I felt worthless,” he said. “I just felt worthless, like I was a drunk, and as soon as I started to feel that, I’d cover it up with alcohol. (Then) I had no feelings.”
As reality slipped from his grasp, so did his health. His older daughter, aghast at his condition, sped him to the hospital.
“I had blood coming out both ends,” Purcell said. “I was yellow, my fingernails were falling off and I was dying. I was literally dying. The doctor said I might not last six months.”
But Purcell didn’t care. Unfazed by death’s shadow, he ripped the IV from his arm and retreated back into seclusion.
“I didn’t want to die in the hospital,” Purcell said. “I wanted to go home and get drunk and die alone.”
His bedroom was just the place to do it. Warm beers covered every surface and wine bottles sat on the floor. He grabbed a Busch Ice, popped the top and stared into its gaping mouth.
“It was 35 years looking back at me, 35 years of drinking and drugging and DUIs and lost families and military,” Purcell said. “I never knew God, I never knew him, but I wanted to kill that pain. I set that beer down and got down on my knees. I said, ‘God, please help me. If you’ll take the desire away, I’ll do the rest.’”
And that was the last time Purcell held a beer.
Starting from scratch
He was sober for one day, and then two. He reached out to his mother and his older daughter and began rebuilding the relationships from scratch.
In late January 2009, Purcell filed to provide financial support for his younger daughter. He wanted to be a part of her life, too. A woman at the courthouse put in him touch with Phil Bowers, a man who could help him get his life back.
Bowers is the director of Sustainable Alamance, a then-new program established to aid ex-convicts in their search for employment. He stood beside Purcell during the child support hearing, and he has stood beside him ever since.
“I met him and his mom in front of the courthouse in Graham, and he was about as nervous as I’ve ever see him,” Bowers said. “He said to me, ‘I’ve never been in front of the judge sober before.’”
But the hearing was a success, and Purcell emerged in ecstatic disbelief.
“He was surprised that something in his life could actually work out,” Bowers said. “From then on, every time we were together, you could tell he was 100 percent in. He was nervous, he was doubtful, but he was ready for change.”
The quest for employment began. With Bowers’ help, it wasn’t long before Purcell was back in his element, remodeling a house.
“It’s not just about giving a guy a job,” Bowers said. “It’s about pushing him into the economy so he can learn sustainability. There are only two guys who have been around since the very first day I opened the door (to Sustainable Alamance), and Tommy is one of them.”
The contractor of the house was Ron Harris, the pastor at Greater Love World Outreach Center in downtown Burlington. He began driving Purcell home after work.
“One day, I asked him where he (and some other workers) went on Monday nights,” Purcell said. “He never preached to me, but just told me that they went to the Piedmont Men of Steel meetings and said there might be something there that I’ve been looking for.”
When Purcell first appeared at a meeting, he unknowingly tied himself to a support group dedicated to helping lost men find faith in God, and with that, faith in themselves.
“Tommy responded to the first Men of Steel meeting with a lot of doubt,” Harris said. “He wanted to believe what he was hearing, but he didn’t believe anyone could do what we were doing.”
For weeks, Purcell was skeptical. He was skeptical of religion, skeptical of the men around him and most of all, skeptical of himself. But his skepticism was soon dissolved by the love and support of his fellow men, and true belief grew in its place.
“I wanted the peace that Pastor Ron had,” Purcell said. “When I surrendered to the Lord, I got so much peace that I never had before.”
Once he made peace with himself, he made peace with his daughters. Neither Kristyne nor Lenzie wished to discuss their relationships with their father, but since becoming sober, Purcell has walked Kristyne down the aisle at her wedding and often visited Lenzie at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she is a student on a full scholarship.
“God had me sober when my girls needed me the most,” he said. “Lenzie was able to concentrate (during) her last year of high school so she could get that scholarship and I was able to be around the drinking (at Kristyne’s wedding).”
Purcell now works as maintenance director of several houses around the Elon University campus. A place that could very well be the Achilles’ heel of an ex-alcoholic is instead a source of pride and strength for Purcell. With his hands, strong and steady, he makes repairs and renovations.
“God knew when I was ready to work in that house, so I’m not tempted by what I find,” Purcell said. “I like the taste of beer. I would like to be able to grill a steak and have a mug of beer and enjoy it. But I’ve lost that privilege. I know that I can’t do that.”
The loss of a privilege resulted in the restoration of another. After a tedious trial and application process, Purcell regained his driver’s license at the beginning of April. He must keep an ignition interlock device installed in his truck for seven months, but he is allowed to drive at any time on any day of the week.
“The judge said to me, ‘You know, I turn a lot of people down at their (license) hearings, but you deserve it,’” Purcell said. “I asked him what kind of restrictions I was going to have, and he said none, because I’m already doing right. I’m not perfect, don’t get me wrong, but I strive to do right.”
Note: This story was revised Dec. 23 to correct a factual error in the original version. Purcell was married twice, not once.