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By SHARON GRAVES
It’s a story that could have ended tragically, but ended with an elderly man getting to his family in Virginia, safe and sound.
Louis Durrett, 78, of Louisville, was traveling to a relative’s home in Orange, Va., when his car overheated on Interstate 71. He got off the interstate at Carrollton and parked behind the Waffle House restaurant on State Hwy. 227, unsure what to do.
No one knows for sure what day it was that he first showed up at the restaurant, but Waffle House employees said they began noticing him on Saturday, Aug. 16.
On Wednesday, a few days later, employees taking a break noticed the man sitting in his car behind the restaurant. When they checked to see if he was OK, they discovered that Durrett had been living in the car for several days, with his small, shaggy brown dog. He had been feeding the dog some of his food from Waffle House, and, despite the summer heat, had kept the car windows rolled up almost to the top so the dog couldn’t get out.
A diabetic, Durrett had none of his medications among all of his belongings that he’d packed into the car.
Misty Stephens, who had just started her job at Waffle House that day, decided the man needed help, so she called Carrollton Christian Church at 310 Fifth Street.
Carrollton Mayor Dwight Louden and Sandy May, both elders at the church, and Carroll County Judge-Executive Harold “Shorty” Tomlinson all responded to the call.
“I think he probably would have sat there until he died,” Louden said later.
Kat Branum, a server at Waffle House for several years, said Durrett would only order a little bit of food with water.
“At first we thought he was homeless, drifting through,” she said. “We’d give him water and juice and food, but no one knew where he was staying.”
When they found out he was staying in the car, she said, “we were afraid he would die if he stayed in that car one more night.”
“His wife had died a month before, and he had no children, but he had his dog,” May said.
The options seemed slim for how to handle the situation, May explained.
“If we put him on a bus, he wouldn’t have been able to take his dog with him,” she said. “His car was packed with all his belongings, and we didn’t want him to lose all of that if we put him on a bus.”
Cliff Lilly, a Waffle House regular who also noticed Durrett, volunteered to buy him whatever he needed.
“He was sitting there watching everyone, quietly crying,” Lilly said, adding that he, too, thought the man was homeless because he was so thin and appeared weak.
When local businessman Herb Kinman noticed the commotion while he ate at Waffle House, he volunteered to help fix Durrett’s vehicle. When he found the car was beyond repair, he assigned a driver he uses to transport cars to take the man to Virginia.
In a phone call later in the week, Durrett’s niece, Marilyn Crawford, confirmed that her uncle was with her at her Orange, Va., home. She reported that he is doing much better.
She said she was surprised when she got the call from local authorities about her uncle being stranded in Carrollton. While she was expecting her uncle to visit, she didn’t know exactly when he had planned to leave Louisville.
Crawford said her uncle suffers from dementia.
“It takes a village,” May said. “The girls at the Waffle House are to be commended. They took a real interest in Durrett when they didn’t have to.”