Matt Vautour: Florence’s Jim Durfer was the type of man to make an impression

  • Jim Durfer (middle), shown with his son Jimmy left and wife Anita at Northampton boys lacrosse senior day in 2016, died after a battle with ALS on Thursday. COURTESY DURFER FAMILY

Monday, July 31, 2017

I spent about an hour with Jim Durfer.

I sat with Jim, his wife Anita and their son for a story about their family and one perfect night of lacrosse just over a year ago.

But I’ve thought of him often since that day until he died Thursday. He’s not someone easy to forget.

By then his ALS had reached an advanced state. His body movements were limited and his speech almost gone. His food came via a tube and most communication was done through the Eye Gaze computer that tracked his eyes on a screen as they moved from letter to letter to make words. I started asking questions not knowing what to expect.

But as the conversation progressed and in the days that followed I found myself regretting I hadn’t met him sooner. I wished I had seen him golf, watched him coach youth sports, heard him argue politics. People who knew him as a neighbor, a business consultant or a coach painted the picture of his big heart, big personality and when the situation called for it, big mouth.

Towns are defined by people like Jim Durfer, men and women, who are involved in activities, who coach not only their children, but your children too. They infuse confidence and values in kids and foster a true sense of community.

Northampton was a better place because the veteran of the Navy and Marine Corps and his family settled there after he graduated from UMass. He volunteered on the town’s recreation commission and was a vocal advocate for more parks and more support. At the same time ,he and Anita were raising two terrific children.

I feel like I missed out not seeing that Jim Durfer in action. Still, even though I met him in the final chapter of his too short life, I left him feeling inspired. That final chapter was a master’s course in grace.

There aren’t many scarier diagnoses than Amyotrphic lateral sclerosis. The progressive neurodegenerative disease moves through a body knocking out a system at a time. There isn’t a cure. Treatment success means slowing its march while hoping for miracles. The average lift span after diagnosis is three to five years. Durfer lived eight years after learning he has the disease in 2009. But surviving longer can mean more loss of basic abilities. It can rob someone of their dignity if they allow it to.

But Durfer faced ALS the way most people would like to believe they would. He was a person not just a patient, a fighter and certainly a wiseass.

He was so proud of how his son Jimmy hadn’t let Asperger’s syndrome prevent him from becoming a contributor to the Northampton lacrosse program. Jim and Anita never let their son be boxed in by expectations that came with Asperger’s, and Jim never let himself be defined by his failing body.

Sure, the words came slowly from the robotic voice of the Eye Gaze machine, but they couldn’t suppress his sense of humor, his appreciation for the people he was lucky to know or the wisdom he gained about life, coaching, parenting and attacking whatever challenges block the road.

I’m glad I’m met Jim Durfer, even if it only was for an hour. I’ll be thinking about him for much longer than that.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage