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013110 barry webb 7
Barry Webb shown at his home in Polson.

POLSON - On the day of his death, from his bed, a semi-comatose Barry Webb suddenly shot his hand into the air and waved vigorously.

His sister, Charlotte Skofstad, figures a familiar face had crept into his mind, and Barry was just saying hello.

But she's fine if people in Polson prefer to interpret the wave as Barry's farewell to the town he loved.

Webb, 69, died at his home last week, two months after being diagnosed with late-stage lymphoma.

"You know Barry was always loud," Skofstad said of her brother, who usually spoke in a booming voice. "He was loud to the end, and then a crushing silence settled over the house."

As friends came and went on the last day of his life, Barry did wake up once, long enough to say hello to friends Butch Shostak and Dave Anson, the minister at his church.

"Barry managed to reach down, and roused himself out of a semi-comatose state," Skofstad said.

The end came quicker than expected - doctors had given him six months when he was diagnosed before Christmas - and robbed Polson of one of its most familiar faces.

For more than half a century, Webb pounded Polson's pavement on a daily basis, walking a route that rarely varied, stopping in the same businesses to chat up the many friends he made around town. A special-needs child in the 1940s when there were no special-needs resources in schools, Webb's routine became a part of the lives of countless folks in town.

Most everyone else at least knew who he was.

Barry Webb was hard to miss.

***

His arms would shoot out and fly through the air in quite precise motions. Whether he was directing traffic out of the high school parking lot after school let out, or conducting a John Philip Sousa recording in his living room, or whipping an upraised arm in circles in the movie theater - his signal to the projectionist that, as far as Barry was concerned, it was time to get this show on the road - Webb was never shy about using hand gestures to get his points across.

He'd mimic referee signals at high school football and basketball games, and bury his head in his hands when he didn't like a call - same thing he'd do at the movie theater, by the way, if a couple kissed onscreen.

He was at every Polson parade and fireworks show, every high school football and basketball game and graduation. He was at the Presbyterian Church every Sunday, in the movie theater every Monday night, at the Polson Senior Center every day for lunch, and walked his familiar downtown route every day after he ate.

Many of his routines began in the 1950s. When word spread that Barry was dying, people in Polson realized they were going to lose an important thread in the fabric of the town.

***

"Everybody in Polson has been so great to Barry, and so great to me," said Skofstad, who arrived from her home in Bothell, Wash., on Christmas Eve and took care of Barry until he died. "I re-learned to love my hometown."

In the last two months, people at the Presbyterian Church made him a photo album - "We love you Barry," it says on the cover. The high school basketball team presented him with a plaque proclaiming him the Pirates' No. 1 fan. Police Chief Doug Chase gave him a certificate making Webb Polson's honorary downtown beat officer. The Valley Journal, Lake County Leader and Missoulian all wrote feature articles on him.

Mike Fantasia, a Libby native now working in the movie business in Hollywood who saw the Missoulian story ("Barry's Town," Jan. 31) online, arranged to have a boxful of gifts from Barry's favorite TV show, "Wheel of Fortune," sent to him - including a personally autographed picture from Vanna White.

Polson High School principal Bill Appleton presented Webb - who wasn't allowed to attend school after the eighth grade - with a high school diploma, 51 years after his classmates had received theirs. That happened at a Valentine's Day party at Cherry Valley School, where first-graders who had all made Barry cards had invited him.

The first-graders' Valentines decorated the walls above the bed in his home where Barry died on Feb. 23.

***

There's been no death notice or obituary published yet - Charlotte Skofstad is waiting for official approval of the tentative plan, which would be to hold her brother's memorial service at Linderman Gym in Polson on Saturday, March 20, at 2 p.m. The obituary will appear when Skofstad knows for sure if the date and time work.

On Jan. 24, her birthday, Skofstad said Barry sang "Happy Birthday" to her, substituting "baby sister" in place of "Charlotte."

"He always called me ‘baby sister,' " she said, "from the time I was a little girl and he took my hand and protected me. I was glad to return the favor. Caring for Barry was my greatest honor and losing him has been my greatest grief."

Their mother, Correan - who died last year at the age of 94 - took care of Barry for decades, but after she became too old and developed sight problems, Barry actually took care of her. He took over shopping and cooking duties that allowed his mother to remain in her home for many more years.

When health issues finally forced her into a nursing home, Barry lived independently in the little house on Polson's Seventh Avenue.

"Barry was so lonely after she moved into the rest home," Skofstad said. "When the end got near I told him he was going to see Mom, to tell her hi for me, that she'd have a big dinner waiting for him. That seemed like an easier concept for him to deal with."

Barry Webb's body has been cremated. Charlotte said she hopes his ashes can become a permanent part of Polson's Main Street, perhaps encased in a sidewalk slab, or the supports for a memorial bench.

Main Street is where Barry would want to be, she said, and it's where just about everyone in Polson wishes he still was.

Reporter Vince Devlin can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or at vdevlin@missoulian.com.

 

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