Jewell Cardwell

Once her oncologist delivered the dire news, Phyllis (Grutzmacher) Cottle stoically decided her exit would be a private one.

Diagnosed last spring with Stage IV cancer, the Cuyahoga Falls woman — also known to close friends as “Bobbie” — died Friday in the home she shared with her beloved cat Sabrina. She was 73. Cremation is being planned and the funeral service will be private.

It was understandable that Phyllis, who lived the last 28 years in the public’s eye — part of it because of the ugly crime that marred her life, and part of it showing others how to stand up to evil — chose a private send-off.

But there is an important role on her journey of unfinished business that Phyllis Cottle would want us to play. And that’s to continue writing, protesting and fighting on her behalf before the Ohio Parole Board each time Samuel J. Herring (inmate A180009) petitions the parole board for release.

Herring is the man who abducted Phyllis Cottle near her job at West Exchange and Cedar streets in Akron on March 20, 1984, and violated her in unimaginable ways; she was robbed, raped, blinded with a knife, and locked inside her 1974 Buick LeSabre, which he set on fire. Of course, he hadn’t counted on the bookkeeper whose hobby was photography to survive, let alone to be able to identify him. But she did.

“My mother wants people to write the parole board not only for her situation,” her daughter Dianne Cannady said. “She wants people to do that for others as well. Opinion, she would always say, does matter.”

Cannady credited her mother’s strong will with helping her to navigate both nightmares: what Herring did to her, and the cancer diagnosis.

“She had her moments when it first happened that she was really upset,” Cannady said about her mother losing her eyesight. “Then she almost methodically began processing the situation, like putting things in a file system in her head like she did as a bookkeeper. Her thinking was ‘I have to overcome this in order to take care of everyone else.’

“It was like she was saying to herself, ‘I’ve got to hurry and get over this.’

“She took everything in stride,” Cannady continued. “She never panicked. That was just her personality. And if she was your friend, she was your friend for life.”

Inspiration to others

Those close to her, including Lucy Dobbins, Gretchen Raymond, Dolores Juriga, and Ann and John Kaser, could certainly attest to that.

“I met Phyllis about a year after she lost her sight,” Dobbins said. “It was down at the Akron Blind Center where my mother and I volunteered. We were fixtures there. My mother had answered an ad to teach bowling to the blind. … Phyllis and I clicked and have been friends ever since. …

“She was always such a positive person. … No matter how many times she was knocked down — with the death of her significant other [Thomas Gearhart] and her daughter [Sue Cottle] — somehow she always popped back up.”

Dobbins talked about what a funny taskmaster her friend was: “When I fell and dislocated my shoulder and had to have surgery, she would call me every day and asked if I was doing my exercises. She really kept after me because she knew I didn’t like exercise. It was always by phone but she kept after me. And there was no use telling her I was doing them if I wasn’t, because she could always tell in my voice if I was being sincere or not.

“She really was a special lady!” Dobbins continued.

In 1989 Dobbins, her mother and Phyllis embarked on an unlikely trip to Hawaii. “We had a great time. It’s a trip neither one of us would ever forget.”

Phyllis Cottle was always willing to speak to schools, churches or others about her blindness and how to work with blind people, Dobbins said. “So many nursing homes and hospitals do not know how to work with a totally blind person,” she said.

“What Phyllis really liked was visiting with the younger children and the questions they would ask,” Dobbins continued. “She told me about one little child asking her how she brushed her teeth. ‘The same as you do,’ Phyllis said. ‘OK, but how do you find your mouth?’ ”

Private, but never bitter

Gretchen Raymond, who took her shopping and to run errands, now has custody of the cat Sabrina. Ann Kaser, a retired nurse and neighbor who attended to Phyllis’ infusions, made it possible for her to remain at home to the end.

Those close to Phyllis say it was also her sense of humor that played a key role in helping her not to become bitter. “She tried to find humor in everything,” Cannady said.

“My mother was a very private person before 1984,” she continued. “So at the end she decided she wanted to be that private person again. … She figured she did her thing while she was here, that she had left her legacy through advocacy for the blind, and that she was an inspiration for a lot of people by living her life in the public’s eye, that she now needed some privacy.”

One of Phyllis’ greatest passions was the Akron Blind Center, which gave her the skills to navigate life when her world went dark. “They were such down-to-earth people,” her daughter marveled. “They were just average people who had lost their sight or were born without it. … There was no judgement-passing there. … They even taught her how to sew.”

For that reason, the family encourages that memorial donations be sent to the Akron Blind Center, 325 E. Market St., Akron, OH 44304; or to the Humane Society of Greater Akron, 7996 Darrow Road, Twinsburg, OH 44087.

In addition to Cannady, Phyllis Cottle also is survived by her daughter Robin Headrick, stepdaughter Kristen Gearhart, three grandchildren, one great-grandson and sister-in-law Barb Starcher.

Phyllis Cottle wished to thank Beacon Journal readers who sent her encouragement cards and kept her in their prayers. “They always brought me sunshine,” she said.

Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or jcardwell@thebeaconjournal.com.