Gordon Werner lived life on borrowed time.He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect as an infant and doctors told Mr. Werner’s parents that he probably didn’t have long to live, Mr. Werner’s wife, Bernadette Werner, said. Fully aware of this, he never took a day for granted.
“He felt like every day and year he had was a blessing,” Ms. Werner said. “That’s how he lived his life.”
A longtime resident, business owner and community leader in the greater Westhampton area, Mr. Werner died after suffering a heart attack last Thursday night, October 23, while on vacation with his family at his second home in Vero Beach, Florida. He was 63.
Known best for his many years as operator of the Follett and Werner Funeral Home on Mill Road in Westhampton Beach, as well as a member both of the Westhampton Beach Board of Education and the Rotary Club of Westhampton, Mr. Werner’s presence was felt throughout Westhampton Beach Village, his home hamlet of Westhampton and much of the surrounding area.
“He was a huge part of this community,” East End Hospice President and CEO Priscilla Ruffin said last week. “He had invisible hands everywhere—he was a constant positive presence for so many.”
Mr. Werner was actively involved in East End Hospice, serving on the organization’s advisory board prior to its formation and, more recently, acting as a member of the nonprofit’s ethics committee while also training new volunteers. For his efforts with the organization, Mr. Werner was presented with the 13th annual Dorothy P. Savage Good Samaritan Award in 2012.
“The true Good Samaritans are the volunteers and the nurses of East End Hospice, and I accept this award on their behalf,” he said at the time.
Mr. Werner served on the Board of Education from 1992 to 2002 and from 2012 until his death. During that time, in addition to helping set the district’s budget, he also forged a strong friendship with fellow board member Jim Hulme.
The two first met in 1989, when Mr. Werner joined the Rotary, and when they weren’t serving their shared community, they would frequently hit the golf course together.
“He was probably one of the most generous people I’ve ever met with his time and his money,” Mr. Hulme said of his friend. “This is a huge loss for me personally. He’s a big guy with a big heart.”
Additionally, Mr. Werner was director of the Westhampton Cemetery Association and actively involved with the Family Service League in Westhampton Beach. In 2000, both he and Jeannette McCreedy served as co-grand marshals of the Westhampton Beach St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Born and raised in Lindenhurst, Mr. Werner also established his philanthropic roots there before moving his family to Westhampton in 1989. He helped establish the Lindenhurst Youth Center, his son Michael Werner said, to give local children a safe place to go after school and on weekends.
“He always had a soft spot for kids,” Michael Werner said. “The Youth Center in Lindenhurst has been in service for 30 years; he wanted a place for kids to go to play basketball, Ping-Pong and other games while being supervised.”
Helping others was a way of life for Mr. Werner, friends and family said. In part, that’s what drew him to the funeral business, being able to help others when they needed it the most.
In recent years, however, he focused the majority of his efforts on one person—his wife, Bernadette.
In September 2012, Ms. Werner was diagnosed with leukemia. She spent two month-long stints in the hospital, and Mr. Werner was by her side every day.
After receiving a stem cell transplant, Ms. Werner’s immune system was compromised, meaning she had to remain in a sterile environment at all times. Rather than go through the process of meticulously cleaning their house to prepare for his wife’s return, Mr. Werner had the apartment above their garage renovated, and the two moved in while she recovered.
Last year, Mr. Werner sold the funeral home to J.M. O’Connell Funeral Home in Southampton so he could devote more time to helping his wife get better.
“He had to cook for me, he had to clean for me, he had to do everything for me. It was hard, but he would never complain—never,” Ms. Werner said. “His purpose was to take care of me and get me better.”
And that’s exactly what he did. Though her immune system remains fragile, Ms. Werner is now cancer free. She said they discussed plans to travel together once she got clearance to go on an airplane again.
“I’m going to miss him just being here for me, his compassion, his love, he did everything for me” she said. “I’m gonna really be lost without him.”
Along with his wife, Mr. Werner is survived by their four sons and a daughter—or, as he often put it, his “four pallbearers and his princess”—according to his son, Michael Werner. They include: Kevin Werner, his wife Wendy and their children Owen and Nate who live in San Diego; Matt Werner who lives Phoenix, Arizona; Joseph Werner and his wife Christina who also live in Phoenix; Michael Werner, his wife Lisa and their daughter Mya who live in Westchester; and his daughter Kristin who lives in Westhampton with her husband Mike and their son Xavier.
A funeral Mass will be held today, October 30, at 11 a.m., at the Church of the Immaculate Conception on Quiogue, and a private cremation will follow.
Visitation was held at the Follett and Werner Funeral Home on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Mr. Werner’s family asks that, in lieu of flowers, donations instead be made to East End Hospice, the Immaculate Conception’s food pantry, or the Gordon Werner Memorial Scholarship. Donations to the memorial fund can be sent to the Westhampton Beach High School Guidance Office, 49 Lilac Road, Westhampton Beach, NY 11978.