Marriage of bold and bashful creates a seven-decade love story

Watch Turlock man visit his wife of 72 years

Six days a week, for the past few years, Tom Murdock of Turlock got on a city bus for a ride of about an hour to visit his wife of 72 years, Ann, at Brandel Manor skilled nursing. On days when his wife was weak or sleepy Tom would read or watch TV.
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Six days a week, for the past few years, Tom Murdock of Turlock got on a city bus for a ride of about an hour to visit his wife of 72 years, Ann, at Brandel Manor skilled nursing. On days when his wife was weak or sleepy Tom would read or watch TV.

Tom Murdock gently pulled the bed coverings from atop his wife’s feet, revealing that she was wearing socks. He slid them off, commenting, “She don’t like socks on. Don’t like her feet covered, either.”

Leaving her feet bare and exposed, Tom leaned in close to her face and softly asked, “That better?” Eyes closed, his wife of 72 years, Ann, nodded yes.

It was Thursday, Feb. 7, and it was going to be a quiet day for the couple in Ann’s room at Brandel Manor skilled nursing, where she was moved to in 2016, while Tom remains at their Crane Terrace apartment. On days Ann was alert, the couple often would hold hands as they visited or Tom read to her. On days she was weak or sleepy, he would read to himself or put on headphones to watch TV.

It’s been Tom’s routine, since Ann’s health began to fail and she moved to Brandel, to rise each day and call her to wish her good morning. Six days a week, he’d make her lunch — typically including a sandwich he’d cut into small pieces — and then board a city bus to go visit her.

Though Brandel is only a mile from Crane Terrace, the ride typically took nearly an hour and included a bus transfer at the Turlock Transit Center. At one point in the circuitous route, he’s only two blocks from her, and in nice weather would get out and walk. In winter, and at age 95, he’d stick with the noisy, bumpy, long bus ride rather than the cold and wet.

Tom’s routine came to an end Saturday, when Ann died. The 92-year-old’s health had been failing since she suffered a stroke in 2015. She had trouble lifting her feet when walking, so often would stumble and fall, and it reached a point Tom couldn’t care for her at home. But at Brandel, he’d be at her side every day except Sunday, when the city bus didn’t run.

Tom had been looking forward to Valentine’s Day with his beloved, and to their 73rd wedding anniversary in July. But their love story, particularly Tom’s devotion to Ann, touched family, friends and caregivers every day.

“When he comes in, a kiss, always a kiss,” Brandel Manor certified nursing assistant Bertha Munoz said last week of Tom’s visits to Ann. “He always brings her chicharrones (pork rinds) and half of a sandwich. It’s a routine they have all the time. ... And he always feeds her, even though she can eat, he wants to make sure she’s eating. He’s always pleasing her, going way above and beyond.”

A neighbor at Crane Terrace, Juvenalia “Maria” Lopes, marveled last week, as Tom waited for the bus, that she didn’t know how he did it. The ride to and from Brandel Manor, on top of visiting with Ann several hours, took about six hours of each day. Lopes did much the same as Tom for more than 11 years when she’d visit her husband at Brandel, “but I’m 23 years younger,” she said.

Tom Murdock of Turlock, Calif. reads one of his love letters that he wrote to his wife Ann years ago. He writes from the road in his early twenties during his time away when he hauled and sold bales of hay.

There’s a simple answer to how and why he made the nearly daily trips. Days before Ann’s death, Tom said being with her is “the only thing I have to do. I’d say No. 1 in my life.”

His daughter Shirlene Ortiz of Klamath Falls, Oregon, added that her mother always came first for her dad, and his granddaughter Mychele Ortiz of Turlock said, “I brag about him all the time. Anything she needs, he is there. He is so loyal and so patient with her.” As she was saying this last Thursday, Tom had his face inches from Ann’s, stroking her and asking where she hurt.

Ann, born in Spur, Texas, and Tom, from Duncan, Arizona, met in Roswell, N.M., where both grew up. He knew of her — he’d seen her roller skating in a traveling show — but they didn’t meet until 1946, the year after he got out of the Army.

The parents of Ann’s best friend owned and ran a little restaurant. Tom and his best friend, who both trucked hay for Tom’s stepfather, occasionally stopped in, and were there one night when Ann needed a ride home. “We flipped a quarter to see who got to take her home, and I won,” he said. He then added that sometimes he’d joke he lost that coin toss.

It was June. He asked her for a date, and they went on three or four of them. Would have been more, but Tom was on the road a lot. They must have been great dates, though, because just a month later, on July 29, they married.

The way Tom tells it, theirs was a classic example of opposites attracting. He was bashful — still is, he said — while Ann was a lot bolder and had a lot of friends. At least one time during their brief courtship, she made a reference to “when we get married,” he said.

“I didn’t even know the lady, still don’t know her,” he said at his apartment last week, drawing laughs from his daughter and granddaughter. “We had no business getting married,” he went on. “I was making no money, she was making no money. It was one of the craziest things. Shouldn’t have lasted but two weeks.”

But it did. And telling their love story, Tom doesn’t try to paint it as a fairy tale. “I’ve thought about it many times,” he said. “It wasn’t a real strong love affair at first.” Like any couple, especially one struggling in tough financial times, they would have arguments. She was a strong woman, and he didn’t want to cave in all the time.

They never discussed separating, though. People ask him the secret to a lasting marriage, he said. “I tell ‘em, just remember your marriage vows. Mainly, be committed — the main thing is to be committed to your marriage vows and honor them.”

Before Tom turned to a career in carpentry, he hauled and sold bales of hay, and Ann kept letters her husband wrote from the road. He’d share things like, “Honey, I have really got the blues” and “Darling, it seems like I’ve been gone six months.” Reading a letter while sitting in his apartment, Tom choked up when he got to a part about running out of money and having enough for only a piece of pie for supper, and saving a dime for coffee the next morning. “I’d give anything if I could call you, but I can’t,” he wrote. “... Someday, I’ll be back with my darling wife.”

Tom and Ann went on to have four children: Jack Murdock of Chiloquin, Oregon; Jamie Ortize of Spokane, Washington; Shirlene Ortiz; and Richard Murdock of Turlock, who is the Stanislaus County fire warden. Their larger family includes 11 grandkids, 25 great-grandkids and two great-great-grandkids.

In 1961, the couple moved from Roswell to Kerman, in Fresno County, where they lived a short time before settling in Atwater for about 30 years, Tom said. The years after that took them to Oregon, Turlock, Washington state, then back to Turlock.

Turlock granddaughter Mychele Ortiz said it was hard to see her grandparents leave the area, but wonderful to have them return. “He’s taught us morals and values,” she said as she followed her mother and grandfather down a hallway at Crane Terrace last week, on his way to visit Ann. “He’s a great example, a mentor. He’s shown us patience, and he’s a true, honest man.”

He’s also been a man pained by seeing his wife failing in health and slipping into dementia. Some days Tom visited with Ann, she’d talk about the doctors making her well so she could return to their apartment and cook and care for him, he said. The last words she spoke to him, just hours before her death, were, “I want to come home.”

Her grandfather has been holding up pretty well since Ann’s death, Mychele Ortiz said. In a brief phone call Wedneday morning, he confirmed as much. “I’m doing good,” he said. The first couple of days after her death, there were a lot of things to do, a lot of people to talk to, Tom added. But it’s “smoothing out.”

With Ann’s death so fresh, talking about her with people has emotions “bubble up,” he said, adding that he can be “a bit of a crybaby.”

And while not having his six-day-a-week routine will take some getting used to, he said, he’s not expecting to miss the bus ride that took a chunk of his time. “I lived by that clock,” he said. “I quit carrying that, and I’m determined to slow down.”

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Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.