Friends, strangers gather for memorial service

Published 5:00 am Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Ricky Salyer had picked up Gary L. Humphrey so many times besidethe road that he began to watch for the rugged-looking, 60-year-oldtransient with a dark tan, white beard and mustache who was oftenclad in jeans, a cowboy hat and boots.

“His smile was sincere and his eyes danced as much as any I’veever seen. Green, as I remember them,” Salyer said as he gave aeulogy for Humphrey Sunday at the intersection of Interstate 55 andBrookway Boulevard.

A small group gathered there to celebrate the life of Humphrey,whose decomposing body was found at the location nearly a monthago. Services Sunday were held in the wooded area next toHumphrey’s last known residence, a rustic campsite with a smallnylon tent and a sleeping bag.

“He moved a lot, but lived in the same place for a good manyyears on several occasions,” Salyer said. “He was from Ohio andstill spent a lot of time there, but loved the South as well. Itwas almost like he migrated from the cooler weather to the South,and then chose a bit more of a northern climate as the days andnights grew warmer.”

Humphrey was discovered June 8 in a small wooded area betweenI-55 and the southbound ramp to Brookway Boulevard by MississippiDepartment of Transportation employees mowing grass. He died fromnatural causes, said Lincoln County Coroner Clay McMorris.

Humphrey was identified last week after investigators linked asurgical plate found in his leg during an autopsy to an operationin Jackson in 2004.

“I first met Gary hitchhiking north on I-55 towards Jackson,”Salyer said. “Over the next several years, I kept count of thetimes Gary rode with me until the number no longer mattered.

“As multitudes of passers-by grumbled and were thankful not tobe in Gary’s shoes – or boots – I literally began watching forhim.”

Salyer said Humphrey was “a special man” and they became friendsover hours of conversation on the highways of Mississippi andLouisiana.

“I have several tapes of Gary since I found his life to be sointeresting. So interesting, in fact, that I had started a storyabout him a few years back,” Salyer said. “I know Gary was proudsomebody took interest in his life because others who knew himcasually passed on to me the pride he felt about having an article,or something like that, at least started about him.”

One of those others was Brookhaven resident Eric Burnett, atrucker who often helped Humphrey on his north- and southboundtravels.

“He was a real nice guy,” Burnett said. “We laughed the wholetime together, like we had known each other for years.”

Burnett said he was comforted to know what happened to Humphreyand that others would gather to honor his memory.

“I’ve been looking for him and hadn’t seen for a while,” Burnettsaid. “I’m sure he’s enjoying this attention.”

Sue Murillo and Rachael Hall said they had never met Humphrey,but felt they needed to attend the services.

“It just touches my heart for someone to go and not have anyonethere,” Murillo said. “We just needed to do this.”

Salyer said Humphrey chose his life and often referred tohimself as a professional hitchhiker.

“(He thought it was) pretty cool that he never had a creditcard, and as long as I knew him never a car note,” Salyer said.”He’d always remind me … that he wasn’t worried about paying nextmonth’s payment because he flat didn’t have one.”

Humphrey appreciated modern conveniences such asair-conditioning, heat, cable television and nice cars, but theyweren’t priorities, Salyer said.

“He didn’t want to stay outside in the cold any more than youand I, and liked to kick back in the air-conditioning when it washot,” Salyer said. “Climate-controlled comfort just wasn’t apriority at the top of his list, nor at the bottom. Matter of fact,most things about Gary just floated along in the middle.”

Instead, Salyer said, Humphrey prized the things most peopletake for granted. The sun rising early in the morning or watchingthe constellations for hours and pondering the existence of lifewere far more important than the frenzied lifestyle he believedmost people chose to live.

“Whatever else was pressing just wasn’t pressing enough,” Salyersaid. “His solitude was as important as his time with others. Hehad an eerie sort of understanding of being happy with himself.That, I confess, I envied.”