Wrestling imparted life lessons to Eblen Charities' Bill Murdock

PROVIDED Bill Murdock is co-founder and executive director of Eblen Charities.

You won't see many photos of Bill Murdock floating around social media.

It's not because the Arden, N.C., resident is withdrawn or camera-shy. Far from it.

Stories abound of Murdock, without any fanfare, going out of his way to help others when no one is watching.

The reason is more in line with his own personal philosophy.

And that's simply to help those who are less fortunate.

Even Murdock, though, would admit that's become increasingly difficult in recent years.

As executive director of the Asheville, N.C.-based Eblen Charities and the Eblen Center for Social Enterprise, Murdock has seen the nonprofit grow from a garage sale to an internationally recognized organization.

The charity was formed in 1991 when philanthropist and former Biltmore Oil Company president Joe Eblen, recognizing an unaddressed need to aid struggling local families, organized a garage sale and raised $400.

Murdock was his go-to guy then, and has been ever since.

During its first full year of service in 1992, the organization reached 300 families. Last year, Eblen reached more than 150,000 with more than 70 programs providing medical, utility, rent, clothing, food and emergency assistance.

In all, Eblen provides millions of dollars in aid each year.

“We were looking for something to help families just like all of us … regardless of income,” said Murdock.

And, he is quick to add, they decided early on that they didn't want to be an organization that said no to folks.

“We wanted to find a way to say yes.”

The 59-year-old Murdock isn't surprised by the charity's success.

“It's not what we intended by any means. Our intention today, and tomorrow, is the same as it was all those years ago. We were just looking for ways to help. It has been a testament to the wonderful folks involved in Eblen.”

Like his mentor and predecessor, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87, Murdock has touched thousands of lives and eased the burden of so many in his community.

“Our guidelines are whatever the people who contact us might need and figuring out how we can help,” said Murdock. “Eblen belongs to everyone.”

It's not a job for someone with thin skin.

From Eblen's Turkey Giveaway, to Tools for Schools, as executive director Murdock leads a group of volunteers and staff that listens to heartbreaking stories every day. Eblen is a safety net for many.

“Anybody can find themselves in a really difficult situation one way or another,” said Murdock. “I'm just so thankful, so grateful, a place like Eblen exists … that there is that safety net.”

All communities should be so fortunate.

Among the many hats Murdock wears is that of wrestling historian.

A member of the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in Waterloo, Iowa, Murdock has authored several books, including a critically acclaimed autobiography of Jack Brisco.

To Murdock — and countless other followers of the profession — the late wrestling star was one of the greatest athletes in the history of the sport.

“You grow up and you have these idols and heroes, and you think you know who they are. Many times they turn out to be just the opposite of who you think they are. But Jack was who I thought he was … who I wanted him to be. He was the same guy. Great champions are rare, but good men are even more so.”

Wrestling has been a passion of Murdock since childhood when he used to frequent the weekly Wednesday night shows at the Asheville City Auditorium. There, Murdock cheered on favorites such as the Briscos, the Scotts, Ric Flair, Tim “Mr. Wrestling” Woods and Abe Jacobs. Little did he know that years later, many of those same stars would become involved in charitable efforts for an organization he would spearhead.

Longtime friend and Hall of Famer Jerry Brisco said Murdock was the antithesis of what many used to perceive as the stereotypical pro wrestling fan.

Murdock's educational resume includes Harvard; Duke, where he taught adjunct classes for 10 years; and Stanford, where he served as a fellow at the Center for Social Innovation.

“He's somebody that's knowledgeable, somebody that sets the bar high and somebody that respects the athletes in the ring,” Brisco said of Murdock, who several years ago was honored as the first recipient of the Lou Thesz World Heavyweight Championship Award.

It's a sport that Murdock, a former high school and collegiate wrestler and coach, said has taught him many valuable life lessons.

Olympic champion and legendary Iowa wrestling coach Dan Gable offered one of those lessons.

“Wrestling teaches you one very important thing,” he told Murdock. “It teaches you to get off your back. And life keeps putting you on your back.”

“I owe a lot to wrestling,” said Murdock. “It certainly taught me mental toughness and to never give up.”

Those qualities have served Murdock well in his line of work.

Murdock, who serves on the Dan Gable International Wrestling Institute and Museum Hall of Fame board, recently helped launch a pair of bookend programs aptly titled Headlock on Hunger (wrestling) and Hoops Against Hunger (basketball) that help provide meals for those who don't get enough to eat.

The programs' goal is to provide disadvantaged children access to food during break times from school.

Among those helping Murdock spread the word nationally are Lee Roy Smith, executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and a former NCAA champion at Oklahoma State, and WWE Hall of Fame announcer Jim Ross.

“I don't believe there should be any hungry children,” Ross said at a recent function. “I think our federal government does a swell job of talking about obesity, but they don't talk enough about feeding hungry kids … I've had a fortunate and great career, bigger than my wildest dreams, and I want to be able to give back.”

The Southern Conference was one of the first to sign on to partner with the programs on a local and regional level.

Murdock estimated more than 10,000 pounds were delivered by league schools in addition to cash gifts of more than $9,000 through the Headlock on Hunger drive as well as the Hoops Against Hunger effort through the SoCon basketball and wrestling tournaments last month in Asheville.

The programs will work with high school, youth and college programs throughout the country to collect food and raise money for their respective communities.

“Everywhere I go I talk to all these wrestling coaches, and they love it,” said Brisco, who serves as a talent scout for WWE.

This is not Eblen's only involvement in battling hunger. It also participates in the Arby's/Eblen Joyfull Home for the Holidays and the Ingles/Eblen Food for Thought programs.

“We gave out 16,000 meals during spring break for kids through Arby's,” said Murdock. “It's amazing to see how these wonderful, altruistic companies and people come together and help us put these pieces together and help more folks.”

Murdock said there's also plans for a “Huddle Against Hunger” in conjunction with the Heath Shuler Foundation established by the former NFL quarterback and congressman.

One of Eblen's biggest drives is during Thanksgiving week. It began as a simple kind gesture when former NBA star and broadcaster Brad Daugherty was playing at the University of North Carolina. That's when the concept for the Great Turkey Giveaway was born, said Murdock.

“(Initially) Brad brought 25 turkeys to be delivered to people who needed them. We got together later, and that number went up to 200, then eventually to a thousand. Last year we gave out 1,300 entire meals to clients that we serve (each turkey can serve a family of 10). The day before Thanksgiving, we served a little more than 13,000 people.”

Daugherty, who now serves on Eblen's board of directors, has also signed on as national chairman of Hoops Against Hunger.

Leadership and community involvement have come naturally to Murdock. He learned it at a young age, spending many of his early years living with his grandfather.

“Every Sunday after mass, we'd walk over to the 'poor box' as they called it and he'd give me a dime or an extra quarter, lift me up so I could put it in, and he'd always remind me: 'It doesn't matter how much, just make sure that you're always thinking of others and giving.' ”

Murdock never forgot that.

“My grandfather was always helping people. One couldn't live with him and not have that rub off.”

Ask any member on Murdock's team, and they'll tell you the same thing.

“Bill Murdock is one in a million,” said Bill Waddell, Eblen's community outreach director. “He's a true servant. I think if you looked up the word in the dictionary, you'd probably see Bill Murdock.”

“He's the hardest worker you'll ever see in a charity,” added Waddell, for whom the nonprofit's Client Services Center is named. “He never puts himself first. He always puts others first, and that's what makes him unique. It has been a pleasure for me for the past 18 years to work beside him. The influence he has been on my life and all those around Eblen Charities is just incredible.”

Murdock sees his mission simply as to help develop programs that help people. He found much of his inspiration in the teachings of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the Roman Catholic missionary who became an international icon for her charitable work and was the recipient of numerous honors, including the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize.

Her life of service was a guiding principle for Murdock's dedication to helping the disadvantaged.

“The greatest thing anybody can do is to reach out to those less fortunate,” said Murdock. “We're all a day away, or a week away, from being in that position. There's no greater value to anyone's life.”

Murdock corresponded with Mother Teresa for a number of years, and it was through her encouragement that so much of the philosophy and work of the Eblen Charities began. Among his most valued possessions are letters he received from the Catholic nun.

One of his prized letters reads as follows: “God love you for all you are doing for the sick and poor. Do not worry if you cannot help in big ways. Never think a small action for someone in need is not much. For what Jesus sees is the love you put in to what you do. He will bless your little and multiply it like he did with the loaves.”

Their correspondence, he said, ended when she took ill about a year before her passing in 1997.

Murdock was honored last year with the Mother Teresa Prize for Global Peace and Leadership. He joined some pretty heady company considering past recipients have included Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama.

“When I accepted it, I accepted on behalf of the people who work at Eblen and those who we serve, the people who are going to be hungry and cold tonight. That's who it really belongs to,” said Murdock. “It's for the people who are here for heating assistance today. It's for the ones that are in line for Christmas help or in need of a coat or housing.”

Murdock's latest book, “In The Final Analysis,” details Mother Teresa's story and message of service.

Her example, he said, was no small influence on the mission of Eblen Charities.

“Bill has one of the greatest hearts I've ever seen in anyone,” said Waddell. “If there's ever a Mother Teresa of the United States, Bill is it.”

Tucked in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville — nicknamed “Land in the Sky” — is a vibrant, culturally rich town known for its eclectic art scene, Biltmore Gardens and magnificent mountain terrain. Listed as one of the best places in the world to live, it attracts millions of tourists and visitors each year.

But there's another side to Asheville that you won't read about in most travel brochures. The statistics are quite sobering.

Twenty percent of the people who reside there live below the poverty level. More than one in four (27.6 percent) children in North Carolina struggle with hunger, according to NoKidHungry.org. Many struggle in and out of homelessness.

“It's quite a dichotomy,” said Murdock. “You've got The Cliffs, and places even more upscale than that, and then you've got mobile home parks just a stone's throw away.”

While Murdock and Eblen Charities serve as many as they can handle, it's not always enough.

In a long, slow economic recovery, that's tough, said Murdock.

“In these difficult economic times, we have people call us that never would have called before. People have lost their business, their jobs, through no fault of their own. It's a continual challenge and it keeps growing and growing. The families that are hit the hardest by the poor economy are already struggling anyway. They're going to be the last to recover — if they ever do recover.”

Murdock will be the first to tell you that Eblen Charities wouldn't exist without its volunteers. As the nonprofit has expanded, so has its need for volunteers.

While Eblen is a company based on partnerships and the kindness of the entire community, Murdock stresses that it's also a family bound together by a close-knit group of volunteers that truly care about those in crisis situations.

During the holidays, hundreds volunteer for Eblen's St. Nicholas Project, which provided Christmas gifts to more than 4,000 children in need this past holiday season.

Murdock recently wrote a book titled “The Inklings of Christmastide,” a compilation of thoughts from a group of British writers whose members included C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton, with all the proceeds going to Eblen's heating assistance program.

“It's just so unusual that you find people like Bill,” said Waddell. “We've asked around if we could figure out to put Bill in a copy machine and run off a few copies. Then we'd have it made. But it's not's so simple. And he's rubbed off a lot on our volunteers, and I think that's a reason we're successful too.”

One of the major fundraisers for Eblen Charities is the Verizon Wireless/Brad Johnson Celebrity Golf Tournament.

The 25th annual event, which will be held this year on May 19 at The Cliffs at Walnut Cove near Asheville, has been a staple of the foundation since the charity's inception and has grown from a 20-team afternoon event to a premier tournament fielding more than 60 teams in morning and afternoon rounds. Local and national celebrities take part along with corporate sponsors and area golfers to raise money for children, adults and families in western North Carolina.

The Super Bowl-winning quarterback whose name it bears attended high school in the Asheville/Black Mountain area.

“Brad hasn't forgotten how important it is and the families we serve there,” said Murdock.

In addition to playing both rounds of golf, said Murdock, Johnson “sets up tables and moves chairs … whatever needs to be done. We're so fortunate to have Brad Johnson, not so much as the Super Bowl champion, but Brad Johnson the man and the heart he has for the community.”

“I have yet to see a more effective organization anywhere than Eblen,” said Johnson. “It is great honor for me be part of their outreach and serve as honorary chairman.”

It was a wrestler, not so coincidentally, who was instrumental in the development of the tournament.

Murdock recalls reaching out to the local wrestling community 25 years ago when looking for a “celebrity” to lend name recognition to the golf fundraiser.

He recalls first reaching out to Ricky Steamboat, who was running a gym at the time in Charlotte. The former NWA world champion, who was unable to make the date, gave him George Scott's number.

Initially, said Murdock, he was in awe of actually calling someone he had idolized as a youngster growing up in Asheville.

“Where everybody else had heroes like Joe Namath and Pete Rose, I had George Scott. I had George and Jack (Brisco) and Dory (Funk Jr.). But George was my first sports hero. He'll always be one of my heroes.”

“For three weeks, I wouldn't call him. I'd call the president or the pope before I'd call George Scott,” laughs Murdock. “I was actually holding George Scott's phone number.”

Murdock eventually mustered the courage to call his boyhood hero and found Scott as engaging and pleasant as he had imagined.

“He was just so nice. He invited me to come down to Spartanburg that Friday night. We went out to eat afterwards and had a wonderful time.”

Scott, who passed away last year at the age of 84, helped recruit a group of pro wrestling stars for Murdock's first celebrity golf tournament, and the event has been going strong ever since.

An avid golfer, Scott enjoyed participating in the annual auction and golf tournament, which greatly added to the star-studded atmosphere, said Murdock.

“He had a good time with everyone. When Jesse Ventura was here for the event, George smiled and pointed out, 'I used to be his boss.' ”

“All of his accomplishments in the ring, in the office, paled in comparison to the man that he was and the wonderful heart that he had for others. He was a world champion in a lot more ways than in the ring.”

Just imagine a job where everyone who comes to you has a huge problem. They expect you to help them with their problem. If not, they might not have food that night, they might not have necessary medication or their children might not have supplies to start school.

Welcome to Bill Murdock's world.

The responsibilities of leading an organization such as Eblen are many, and the burden is great.

To Murdock, though, it's “a glorious burden.”

“It's a great responsibility, but it's also such an honor to be able to be part of this, to work with such wonderful folks at Eblen,” he said.

For the first six years of what was then called the Eblen Foundation, Murdock served as the sole employee, with Joe Eblen as his adviser.

Most of his current staff have been with the charity for many years. During winter hours, they're available at night and extended hours. They are courteous to clients, they listen and then they see how they can help.

“I'm just so grateful to all of them,” said Murdock. “I'm in awe of their generous and kind spirit.”

The most gratifying part of the job for Murdock, he said, is seeing those clients walk out of the office with smiles on their faces and a renewed sense of hope.

“It's not Eblen or me … it's the work. The real heroes that I admire and that we all admire that are a part of Eblen are the families that we serve. They're the ones who have the courage day after day to face these difficult situations. When we go home at the end of the day, for a while we can shut it off and forget about it until the next day. But the folks we serve can't. Every waking moment they are wondering if they have enough medicine, if the lights are going to be turned off or if the children have enough food.”

Perhaps Bill Waddell sums it up best.

“Bill and I talk a lot about how you'll never be happy in life until you help others. If you're just happy with what you have and you're not concerned about your fellow man, you're not going to be a very happy person. Scripturally, the Bible teaches that, and it's the gospel in reality.”

Reach Mike Mooneyham at (843) 937-5517, or follow him on Twitter at @ByMike Mooneyham and on Facebook at Facebook.com/MikeMooneyham.