Homelessness hasn't stopped Purnell

By Ellie Aguilar - Staff Reporter

David Purnell

By Ellie Aguilar

Staff Reporter

Dr. David Purnell knows a thing about what students might be facing.

New communication professor at Highline has been homeless four times, lost his wife in a fire, and has faced a career collapse during economic recession.

Purnell, 53, was born in San Diego but was raised on a farm in Virginia where he and his family were very poor. Since then Dr. Purnell has lived in 30 states, has visited all 50 states, and visited 50 countries.

"I want students to know that I'm approachable and I know what struggle is. Not everyone is able to just come to class and go home, have security and have someone be there to support you," said Dr. Purnell.

At the age of 14, Purnell faced homelessness for the first time.

"My mom had just left my dad and she wasn't allowed to work because the man is supposed to take care of the house. We did stay in a basement at my mom's friend house so we did have shelter. We were sleeping on the floor and we were still displaced," Dr. Purnell said.

After their time of struggle and bad home situation, Dr. Purnell was the first on both sides of his family to graduate from high school. He then decided to go to college at Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tenn.

"No one in my family was religious but I went to church very regularly and somehow decided I should be a pastor," Dr. Purnell said.

While at the four-year private Christian university he changed his major a couple times he said but the biggest change that happened to him had nothing to do with his studies.

"I was in a house fire. I lost my wife in that fire and I went to the school to say 'You know this is what happened, I need a place to stay.' They told me that for some amount of dollars I could stay in a dorm. I was really pissed because that's not a very Christian thing to do," said Dr. Purnell.

He then left the school and the church and was once again homeless at the age of 19.

"This shook my faith pretty hard because already having suffered a great tragedy than not having any type of help from the church. I stopped going to church for a long time," he said.

Dr. Purnell said that in the early '80s there was only one church that had any kind of assistance and that was a soup kitchen. That soup kitchen would be his one meal of the day during the time he was homeless.

"I would go during the middle of the day just to sustain myself because I had lost everything in that fire," Dr. Purnell said.

It was then that Dr. Purnell had a what he said was an epiphany. He said that he couldn't feel sorry for himself because there were people that had bigger struggles than he did.

"It just struck me that half the world would want to trade places with me. I decided then that I was never going to allow myself to get that down emotionally again," said Dr. Purnell.

To get back on his feet, Dr. Purnell joined the military and served one tour in the US Air Force. He was stationed in Washington, D.C.

"While I waited to go to the military I moved back home but again I didn't like being there so I moved to Virginia Beach and that's the third time I was homeless," he said.

Dr. Purnell, now 20 years old, had a job but couldn't afford to pay rent for a house or apartment by the beach he said.

"I had money and ate at the nicest restaurants in town but I slept on the beach. It was actually kind of a good time to be homeless. I was able to do a lot of things I wouldn't have been able to do if I was trying to pay rent every month," said Dr. Purnell.

Shortly after Dr. Purnell left the military he moved to Florida and found a job.

"I was like a nomad or gypsy, I went from job to job. One year I had 16 W-2 forms. But later somehow, luck I guess, I settled with this optician and then from there they trained me to start taking patient history, assisting him with surgeries," he said. With hands-on training and experience, Dr. Purnell went from being paid $8 per hour to $120,000 per year.

During the rise of Dr. Purnell's career in ophthalmology at the age of 28 he faced another sudden turn of events.

"I was moving from Georgia to California for a job. This was before phone and all that stuff and once I get there they tell me that they couldn't afford to hire me. I had already sold everything put a few belongs in my car and drove," said Dr. Purnell.

While his money was running out, Dr. Purnell decided to go to a bar.

"I went to a bar to get drunk and I said I'll figure it out tomorrow. When I walked into the bar these two guys were arguing and I heard one of them say 'You're fired'. So, I walked up to him and asked if he was looking for a bartender. I didn't know how to bartend but he hired me right there and I started working. I slept on that pool table of that bar for about two months until I raised enough money to get an apartment," Dr. Purnell said.

After two months of homelessness, Dr. Purnell eventually got back to his ophthalmology career and again started making money.

"With the job I had I ended up with an executive position where I was making really good money for the first time in my life, my nice six-figure income. I was training people that worked in surgery centers to use the equipment that the company I was working for was selling. I ended up doing all the international training so that's how I travelled so much," Dr. Purnell said.

This six-figure salary didn't last forever. During the 2008 financial crisis, the company that Dr. Purnell worked for started to lay employees off.

"Because I didn't have a degree I couldn't make a lateral move to another company. I didn't want to start at ground zero and work my way up, so I went back to school," Purnell said.

He finished his studies at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa. He got a bachelor's degree, a master's degree in English, and a doctorate in communication with an emphasis in interpersonal communication.

Dr. Purnell was hired at his alma mater as a visiting professor which was a one-year position. After the year was over he was hired at a full-time tenured position at Mercer University in Georgia.

"I then moved to Washington because my partner got a job here and we said whoever got a job first we'd move. He obviously got the job first," Dr. Purnell said.

But Dr. Purnell had been to Washington and said he loves the state. He has been with his current partner for 17 years.

"I visited out here for eight years every summer and winter. I knew what I was getting into with the winters being gray and rainy but I love that weather. It was a little long this year but I figured because this is my first winter here that it's nicer just to get it out of the way," he said.

Dr. Purnell looks forward to what the future holds for him in and outside of Highline.

"I'll continue to use all this experience and information to help my students stay in school," Dr. Purnell said. "I'll try and encourage people to believe in their self and I think my story helps people believe that they will overcome whatever it is they are going through."

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Suicide Stopped

An alert Highline staff member and local public safety officers helped stop a potential suicide on campus last week. While a staff member was working, he noticed a suspicious male wandering the East Lot around 6:25 a.m. May 25. The staff worker called Highline Public Safety who responded to find the individual running around with a rope in his hands, looking for a place to possibly hang himself. This prompted Public Safety to contact Des Moines Police and South King County Fire and Rescue. By the time first responders came to the scene, the distraught man climbed into a tree near Building 99, ready to use the rope on himself. First responders talked to the man, successfully convincing him to come down from the tree. After the turmoil settled the individual was transported to a nearby hospital for an evaluation. Sgt. George Curtis of Public Safety said this was the first time he has encountered someone attempting to endanger their own life on campus.

Staff member passes out

Public Safety said the actions of the staff member who reported the incident is an excellent example of how “see something, say something” could potentially save a life. A staff member was reported to have passed out in Building 4 at 8:10 a.m. The person was sitting in their chair when they lost consciousness, then fell out, hitting their head on the ground. Public Safety arrived but the staff member refused any medical treatment.

Late night fast food runs a no-no

A suspicious car was spotted on campus at 1:35 a.m. on May 28 by a Public Safety officer. The car was occupied by two students and parked between buildings 29 and 22. The two students had gone to Jack in the Box and decided to eat the fast food on campus. They were told by the officer to leave because campus was closed.

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Man is found washing cigarette butts in bathroom. Officers made contact with a non-student who appeared to be washing cigarette butts in the third-floor bathroom sink in Building 26 on May 25 at 10:40 p.m. The man was told to clean up and leave campus. He complied and took his cigarette butts elsewhere.

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