After Barbara Werniak and her husband Robert died within three hours of each other April 1, old friends and neighbors from Blue Island responded with an outpouring of superlatives on social media.
“Two of the nicest people on the planet,” recalled one.
“Wrote the book on what good neighbors were,” added another.
“Like your neighborhood mom and dad,” wrote a third.
“Great family,” “Perfect couple,” others offered. And on and on.
Does it matter then that this married couple of nearly 60 years, founders of popular local mainstay Bob’s Auto, died from COVID-19, the terrible illness that has turned the world upside down and put our nation on lockdown?
Of course, it matters. And then again, it matters not.
The manner of the Werniaks’ death does not detract in any way from the good lives they led or from the family they left behind.
But it surely compounds the tragedy of their passing, and the knowledge of it adds to our understanding of the terrible toll the novel coronavirus is quietly taking in our communities.
Barbara Werniak, 80, was pronounced dead at 12:35 p.m. that Wednesday at Palos Community Hospital. Robert, 81, followed at 3:21 p.m.
Cause of death for both was listed as bronchopneumonia and COVID-19.
Each of them had underlying health problems, according to the Cook County medical examiner’s office. She had high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. He suffered from heart disease and asthma.
I don’t know how long they had been in the hospital or what transpired in their final hours. Family members declined to be interviewed.
All we know is that they died within hours of one another.
“I’m thinking that’s the way they would have wanted,” said Marion Decker, 87, an old family friend. “Neither of them would have made it without the other.”
It can happen that way. Just a few days prior to the Werniaks, another couple in their 80s, Luiva and Feliks Ogorodnik of Skokie, died within hours of each other from COVID-19.
But the timeframe also speaks to the fearsome speed of the disease. For those who are vulnerable, it can take them quickly.
The Werniaks were living in Chicago Ridge at the time of their death but spent most of their lives in Blue Island.
It was there they were born and where they raised their own five children, and it was in Blue Island that Robert Werniak opened Bob’s Auto, the family business now run by his son, Robert Jr., better known by the nickname “Bones.”
For many years, Bob’s Auto was located at 123rd and Western.
It was not just a gas station, more what we used to call a service station, where the emphasis was truly on old-fashioned customer service.
Long after self-service pumps had taken over the industry, a motorist could still get “Full Service” at Bob’s with an attendant who would not only pump your gas, but check the tire pressure and oil gauge and clean the windshield.
Bob’s started as a Sinclair station, but nobody could tell me what brand of gas Werniak sold in later years, an indication the main attraction at Bob’s was Bob himself, his personality and his knack for fixing up cars.
The bell would ring inside the station, and out would pop Bob, always making conversation and usually with a joke.
Barbara Werniak, “Bird” to her friends, worked at Bob’s as well, doing the books and whatever else needed doing, the way of family businesses.
Like her husband, she was outgoing and friendly, a real talker.
Bob’s Auto was also where “everyone” watched the annual Blue Island Fourth of July parade, said Nancy Bechstein, a family friend.
At some point, the Werniaks’ oldest son, Robert Jr., opened an auto body shop alongside his father.
After Robert Sr. retired, Robert Jr. moved the business to 124th and Vincennes where it remains today as Bob’s Auto Body and Auto Repair. Bob Sr. would still come around daily and chat up the customers.
The Werniaks also spent lots of time at their cottage on Fish Lake in White Pigeon, Michigan, a spot popular with many of their Blue Island friends, including Decker.
They kept an old Sinclair gas pump out front and a pontoon boat out back. Like everybody else at Fish Lake, they had a golf cart they drove around the lake in the evenings, stopping at friends’ places for a drink.
The Werniaks leave behind four children: Susan Gassmere, Robert Jr., John and Jeff. Another son, Michael, preceded them in death. They had nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
“You couldn’t ask for a better family,” Bechstein said.
As painful as it is, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 will always occupy a place in Werniak family lore, just as they will have a place in its tragic history.