GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Marshall Purnell likes to tell people that while he may be average height, his life has been anything but.
Purnell spent a great portion of his life in West Michigan, leading his Ottawa Hill High School basketball team to a state title his senior year before heading to the University of Michigan, where he got a master’s degree in architecture.
After school, Purnell spent the next decades working on projects with his own firm, Devrouax & Purnell Architects Planners. Eventually, he would also serve as the first Black president in the history of the American Institute of Architects.
While Purnell had the chance to work on projects like the Washington Convention Center, Washington National Airport and Pepco’s headquarters during his nearly 40-year career, he said that there is clearly one that stands out to him: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.
“It’s the one that means the most to me,” Purnell said. “It means the most to me because of who it’s for.”
It’s been nearly 55 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Purnell remembers that day as he was just two months away from graduating high school.
“It was devastating to me. Just this shock came over me,” he said. “I couldn’t process it totally. And when I came home from school, I remember just starting to cry at that point.”
That night, Purnell said he was overcome with emotion that he began to write a poem titled, “The King is Dead, Long Live the King.” He turned it in the next day as part of an English assignment.
The poem then started to get passed around the school and eventually got into the hands of a group organizing a march to Grand Rapids City Hall. Purnell got a call the day before the march and was asked to be there and recite the poem on the steps of city hall.
“In that moment, reading that, was when I grew up,” Purnell said. “I passed from a young teenager, boy, adolescent, to manhood when I read that.”
Years later, Purnell would have the chance to use his gift to pay homage to King with a national memorial in Washington D.C. The project took more than a decade to complete but the 4-acre site was finally unveiled just southwest of the National Mall and is now visited by thousands of people every day. It’s something Purnell is still proud of to this day.
“To have an opportunity fall in my lap … it was amazing,” he said. “It was sort of really serendipity that I would have an opportunity to sort of put something there that everybody could remember him by.”