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Hospice of South Texas cares for its avid fundraiser

By Elena Watts
Dec. 21, 2013 at 6:21 a.m.

Judy Murphree is the artist behind the 12 angel ornaments that have been created as a fundraiser for Hospice of South Texas. The artist, who is currently on Hospice herself, handcrafted at least 350 of the ornaments a year for 14 years. When she stopped making them in 2008, she had created 12 Angels of Hospice and two heart ornaments. The first one she made is seen in the center, holding a candle.

Judy Murphree, 69, crafted more than a dozen unique angels from white clay for Hospice of South Texas before Hospice was needed to help her.

"I am so moved to get to care for her now in her final weeks and months because she took care of us for so many years," said Sandra Ryan, director of bereavement and volunteer services for Hospice of South Texas. "Everyone was vying to be on the team caring for her."

Murphree has two children who inherited her creativity.

Cassie Kruemcke, 40, is a graphic designer in Fort Worth, and Bryce Murphree, 43, is a chef in Austin. She has one granddaughter, Merrill Kruemcke, 9, and she lost her husband, John Murphree, a local attorney for many years, in May.

"We grew up making things - arts and crafts, clay and cooking, hammers and nails," said her daughter. "You had to have a more creative mind then because so many wonderful design and production tools that exist now weren't around in the '80s and '90s."

In 1993, Nancy Sanders approached Murphree with her idea to sell Christmas ornaments for the hospice.

"Judy's creations became a tradition for the organization that comforts patients and their families," Sanders said.

Murphree designed 13 unique angels clasping different items - including a candle, a star, a heart, a butterfly and a cross - before she retired in 2007. She also created a couple of heart ornaments the hospice.

The pure white angels are a natural fit with end-of-life situations, and Murphree's are beautiful symbols of what hospice is all about, said Mary Logan, friend and former hospice employee.

"The angels were 100 percent inspired by Mom," said her daughter. "She had to move her studio to a charming old cottage when our house was overtaken by them."

Hospices across the country began purchasing Murphree's angels for their fundraisers, but Victoria always remained her priority, said Rose Drost, friend and hospice volunteer.

She reserved first editions for Hospice of South Texas and released them to other nonprofit hospices only after one year.

"Her business was one of the first cottage industries in Victoria," Drost said.

She sold 20,000 to 25,000 angels per year and employed five people to help with production, in addition to her core team, said Jackie Thomas, who worked with Murphree for several years.

Thomas, Cari Laza and Michael Toskovich composed her core production team, while Ginger Henke and Grace Margaret Anderson also helped with production and packaging.

"Everything she touches is just beautiful," said Anderson. "Things we can only dream of doing, she does with grace and ease."

Thomas recalled fun trips to San Antonio to purchase clay for the angel ornaments.

"We were like a family all of those years," Thomas said. "She is a classy, sophisticated, warm lady who could relax and have fun with us."

The year-round business produced as many as 200 angels a week, Thomas said.

One machine pressed the clay into coils, and another rolled it into slabs.

Murphree and her team hand-cut the angels from clay with dies made from her designs, stamped the backs and meticulously added details such as hair and hand-tied the ribbons from which the angels hanged.

"Quality was a top priority," Thomas said. "These were gifts given in honor or in memory of someone loved, and she wanted them to be special."

The packaging was just as perfect.

Each angel was placed on a thin layer of foam and fine tissue inside a goldish-tan handkerchief box sprayed with Ralph Lauren potpourri spray. Murphree hand-tied every ecru, satin bow around the boxes, Thomas said.

"Judy's artistry symbolizes her love for the organization," Ryan said. "The intangible gift was the spirit she imbued into her angels, and the tangible gift was the money her angels helped raise for our organization."

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