NEWBURYPORT — The city said goodbye last month to a local celebrity who was never famous in the strict sense of the word, but probably touched more lives in his 47 years of life than a Hollywood A-lister.
Those who knew Brent Paulhus from his days at Newburyport High School (class of ‘84) or from Northeastern University or the pizza parlor where he worked in his 20s or from his days as a stockbroker at the Stock Cross financial firm, knew the sad day was coming ever since he announced to them 12 years ago that he’d been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known more familiarly as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But even after watching Paulhus suffer for years from the effects of the disease that robbed him of the physical vitality he’d been blessed with, when word leaked out that everyone’s favorite neighborhood boy was reaching the end, nobody wanted to let him go.
The outpouring of emotion, in hundreds of posts on Brent’s Facebook page and on a page set up to support him through his battle, was staggering. It painted a picture of a man whose short life was devoted absolutely to serving others and supporting friends and strangers in their hour of need.
“He actually knew more people than I’ve ever seen,” said Bryan Paulhus, speaking of the number of folks who shared stories of all the good times they’d shared with his identical twin brother. “This sounds made up, but he wasn’t necessarily famous as a celebrity, but he was more personally known than anyone I’ve ever heard of.”
When they were children, the self-proclaimed shy Bryan always marveled at the way his twin brother navigated so comfortably in his relationships with others. As twins do, he said, the duo would often take advantage of their strikingly similar features to pose as the other, but while many were confused over which of the brothers was which, Bryan says the two were actually very different. And he still stands in awe of how others were attracted by his brother’s empathic nature.
“He was a connector of humanity,” said Bryan. “You always got the sense he looked at everyone as valuable and everyone as important. Nobody was dismissed.”
That idea is portrayed by the fact that in his last days, when brother Jeff Paulhus requested friends send in memories of their times with Brent so they could read them to him, so many stopped what they were doing to craft a loving goodbye. They spoke of good times on the football field at NHS, at the baseball diamond at Perkins Playground and participating in some hair-brained adventure or game thought up by Brent that turned an otherwise boring day into unforgettable memory.
Some also spoke of painful times in their lives when they were most fragile, and how Brent sought them out with attention and kindness, as if he knew what they were feeling.
“We had a grandfather who lost his wife and was all alone,” said Bryan.
With the funeral over and the rest of his grandfather’s family and friends moving on with their lives, their grandfather sank into a sort of depression, until Brent sought him out and asked him what he liked to do.
“I like Italian meals,” was the answer, to which Brent replied that the two would go to Ponte Vecchio in Danvers and partake of the best in the region. At the end of the meal Brent looked at their grandfather and asked if he liked it. The elder replied that he did, and Brent informed him they’d be going back the following night.
“At 82 years old, (Brent) gave the guy a baseball bat and started pitching balls to him,” said Bryan. “The guy lit up like a Christmas tree. He took him to Ponte Vecchio’s until he died. He didn’t provide compassion at the bare minimum, but at the maximum that he could give.”
And everyone felt it, from the homeless people he struck up friendships with on the way to work in Boston each morning, to the strangers he met on trains, boat rides and streets in unfamiliar locales.
“We started to count how many people he was the best man at the wedding of and we lost track,” said Bryan. “He was literally all of our best friends’ best man.”
From the stories told by friends, Bryan said it’s clear he lived a life that was full, even if it was too short. And he and his brother Jeff both encouraged Brent’s friends who mourn for him to let him live on in them by embodying some of his attributes. That’s what Brent would have wanted, said Bryan, for others to be more compassionate. Brent was fond of saying, for instance, that one shouldn’t be mean to others ever, because they are someone’s baby, in whom someone has invested everything.
“He seemed to see expressions that other people missed,” said Bryan, who tells the story of a trip they took with some friends to Baltimore and a dinner none of them could finish.
As the foursome filed out of the restaurant, holding their doggie bags, Brent noticed a young boy walking with his family and focusing for just a moment on Brent’s leftover bag.
“He took all of our doggie bags and walked over to the family and said, ‘Here you go.’”
“The (family) started crying,” said Bryan. “None of us had any indication that anyone was needing anything. He gave them money, and we all gave them money. He was the only one who could see they were in pain.”
In his final days when his abilities limited his mobility, he wrote supportive posts and emails to friends, never letting on the pain and struggle he was going through, focusing instead on helping ease their burdens, said Bryan.
“He was alone in bed and he still kept reaching out,” said Bryan.
A gathering of family and friends to celebrate Brent’s life will be held at the Ale House in Amesbury tomorrow, beginning at 6 p.m.