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Crowd mourns death of Paul Herbst Jr., son of Vernon council member

By Suzanne Carlson
Journal Inquirer
Published: Monday, January 10, 2011 12:47 PM EST

VERNON — Nearly 300 people filled Sacred Heart Church to capacity on Saturday to mourn the death of Paul “Herby” Herbst Jr., 55, son of Town Council member Marie Herbst and husband Paul.

“As difficult as the life he had was, he celebrated his own life and he celebrated it well,” the Rev. Stan Szczapa said.

Herbst died on New Year’s Day after living for 37 years as a quadriplegic at home on Brandy Hill Road under the care of his family and several personal health aides.

In addition to his mother Marie, a longtime public official and former state legislator, and his father, Paul Sr., his primary caretaker, Herbst leaves behind four sisters, Debra, Kate, Laura, and Janet, several nieces and nephews, and his beloved dog, Ellie.

Shortly after graduating from Rockville High School, Herbst was a passenger in a car traveling on Reservoir Road on Friday, July 13, 1973. The car drifted off the road and hit a tree stump, causing minor injuries to the driver, but leaving Herbst permanently paralyzed from the neck down due to a spine fracture, four days before his 18th birthday.

Herbst spent several weeks in the intensive care unit at Rockville General Hospital before he was transferred to the former Newington Children’s Hospital for about nine months, and then finally the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitative Medicine in New York City.

“You guys took a tragedy and you turned it into a blessing and a gift,” Herbst’s brother-in-law, Kyle Mansfield, said during one of four eulogies given at the service Saturday.

The horrific event, which happened while Paul Sr. was on a business trip to Japan and could not immediately return, “could have and should have split your family apart, but it didn’t. It made it stronger,” Mansfield said.

“Putting him in a nursing home or a rehab center was not an option to them, they kept him with them,” family friend and Democratic council member Pauline Schaefer said today.

Schaefer said she often would drop her three daughters off at the Herbst home when they were still students at Rockville High School to hang out with Herby and talk sports and recent events.

In the last few years, as Marie Herbst’s health prevented her from driving to council meetings, Schaefer would stop to pick her up and “he always had comments. … He was on top of everything, you know, nothing got by Herby.”

Herbst’s niece, Stacey Ryan, said she had lived at the home for the last three years while studying for her doctorate in physical therapy and found a best friend and a “study buddy” in her uncle, who also chose her name at birth.

She recalled some of Herbst’s favorite things, including “watching Monk on Friday night,” Rold Gold pretzels, smoked pork chops, the music of Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, and the Allman Brothers, sunbathing on his wheelchair ramp, and “taking trips to Bermuda, which meant turning the space heater all the way up.”

His paralysis meant that Herbst had limited control of his life, and Ryan and others said he cherished what small pleasures he had power over.

He was a stickler about his “beer time” at 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. every day, and, Schaefer said, he and his father would travel to collectors’ shows to add to Herbst’s massive cache of more than 1,100 rare beer cans that lined the shelves of his room.

He also continued to pursue his adolescent passion for classic cars with the aid of his friends at the Ty-Rods hot rod club, who helped him restore his ’66 Chevelle and a prize-winning ’66 Corvette.

“He was a real gearhead,” Schaefer said.

According to friends and family, Herbst dealt with his disability with a mixture of wry humor and blue language.

If Herbst was bored alone in his room, he would call out, “Hurry, hurry! I’m up and walking!” and then, “You were too late! I got tired and had to lay back down,” said a longtime friend who spoke at Herbst’s funeral.

Of their times he went to see Herbst in the hospital after the accident, “I was sometimes not sure if he really enjoyed the visits, or just couldn’t get away,” he added jokingly.

“He played tricks on everybody. … He just was on Marie all the time. He was very, very active,” Schaefer said, laughing at the memory.

Herbst’s funeral Mass was packed with both former and current political figures, including Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman; U.S. Rep. Joseph D. Courtney, D-2nd District; Rep. Claire L. Janowski, D-Vernon; Mayor Jason L. McCoy and Thomasina Clemons, a former Democratic representative from Vernon; and Joan A. Lewis, a former Democratic representative from Coventry.

Several council members were in attendance, as well as Fire Chief William Call, Police Chief James L. Kenny, Fire Marshal Raymond Walker, Democratic Town Chairman Steve Taylor, Republican Town Chairman Harold Cummings, and numerous town employees.

Schaefer said that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy called the Herbst family to offer his condolences, but could not attend the funeral because of a previously scheduled public event.

According to his wishes, Herbst was cremated and will be interred at Valley Falls Cemetery at the convenience of his family.

Herbst lived far longer than most quadriplegics, likely due to the high level of care he received from family members, Schaefer and others said.

“He was a gift,” Marie Herbst said.

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