A life defined by more than one night

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Theresa Barbo is the author of “The Pendleton Disaster Off Cape Cod: the Greatest Small Boat Rescue in Coast Guard History,” with Captain W. Russell Webster USCG (Ret.), published by The History Press.

All author proceeds benefit a scholarship fund at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.

Theresa Mitchell Barbo

During the writing of the book, Barbo came to call Bernie Webber a dear friend. She offers this remembrance.

I’ll miss Bernie’s voice the most — the gravelly, rambling baritone tinged with a distinct New England accent. His dry-witted retorts, plainspoken manner and his wise, swift counsel.

We glean chronological footprints and bookends of someone’s life in mainstream obituaries — necessary seminal information like age, education, location of residence, marital status. Rarely these notices gauge and fully measure the deceased’s humanity: how they treated others, what they valued and cared about, what they left behind.

One story about Bernie reveals all you need to know.

Days after Bernie’s passing, his widow, Miriam, told me that “absolutely no” obituary should appear in their hometown Melbourne, Fla., newspaper, let alone an article mentioning his status as a Coast Guard hero. Bernie would have agreed. When they resettled to Florida, the Webbers never discussed the Pendleton rescue with new friends, who knew only that Bernie had served in the Coast Guard for more than 20 years. His passport into their hearts was his bearing as a human being, not his legacy as a military hero.

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As miraculous as that one rescue was, it marked only one night in Bernie’s life. One single night, and the guy could never outlive the ‘fame’ that others would define as his sole legacy. He loathed being known for one act of bravery when he was only doing the job he was hired and trained to do.

Bernie once told me that being called a hero “was a life-wrecker” for all the petty jealousies and false assumptions it garnered.

Coast Guard Captain, W. Russell “Russ” Webster’s dogged efforts brought about a reunion in 2002 of the 36500 crewmen, where the Coast Guard reissued the Gold Lifesaving Medals. This reunion has spawned renewed interest in, and appreciation for, the 1952 Pendleton rescue.

It was this reunion that brought me and Bernie together. It also brought about the healing of many of Webber’s emotional wounds of yesteryear.

When I learned that Captain Webster — who’s now retired from the service and at FEMA, but was then chief of operations for Coast Guard District 1 in Boston — was planning the 2002 reunion, I offered to help with the Cape Cod leg of the three-day event that would begin in Boston. Bernie and his wife met at my house on the Cape to drive to the reunion together.

When I opened the back door, I saw he was taller than I had expected, spry but strong, with a long face and large glasses. I imagined in his younger years he was gangly — all arms and legs — a skinny kid full of vigor and common sense even then.

He, his wife, Miriam, and I sat at my kitchen table and he asked about my husband, our kids, the family dog, all superficial but genuine stuff people talk about when getting to know one another. By the time I poured the coffee I felt we were fast friends, or close to it.

Since then, I’ve had to tread carefully through the emotional terrain of 50-plus years worth of Pendleton-related angst, so our amity wasn’t always a clear path in those earlier days. We eventually found our way through the bramble to know the true gift of genuine friendship. During one of our last phone calls I was able to tell Bernie that he was one of my best friends, and that I loved him.

Bernie never stepped foot inside a college classroom, but was one of the most intelligent men I’ve ever met. Bernie was curious about the world, its inner workings and the people in it. He never lost his love for the Coast Guard and retained correspondences with many in the service today.

Although his journey that cold night over the bar was nothing short of remarkable — miraculous even — Bernie’s character, personal integrity and value system are what make him a hero in my eyes.

In the days following his death, during passages of quietude when the house was still and I’d forgotten that he had died, I reached for the phone a few times to call him and hear that gravelly baritone once again, then remembered he was no longer.

Theresa Mitchell Barbo lives in Yarmouth Port, Mass., and is a maritime writer and lecturer. On March 21, the authors of “The Pendleton Disaster Off Cape Cod” will address 500 cadets at the Coast Guard Academy on the topic of leadership and the crew of the CG36500.

See related article "Pendleton rescuer remembered for valor."

 This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.