By JANET HEIM
3:46 PM EST, December 15, 2012
Gary Breakall personified the best of small-town living. His devotion to family, church, community and work made a difference in the lives of many.
Born and raised in Hancock, Gary was the third of six children. His parents, Oscar and Jesse Breakall, owned a flour mill in town, and that later became a feed mill and small grocery store.
Shirley Hawbaker and Gary, who played basketball and soccer, were in the same class in high school and started dating during their sophomore year.
He met Shirley, who had gone to school through the eighth grade at a one-room schoolhouse near Mercersburg, Pa., when she moved to Hancock to live with her sister and her family for her high school years.
The couple were married for more than 58 years and had four daughters and seven grandchildren.
Gary was involved in whatever Shirley volunteered to help with when their own children were in school. They were co-presidents of the Hancock High School PTA, band boosters and Girl Scouts.
“He helped with everything,” Shirley said.
Even though Gary wasn’t in the Hancock Rotary, their family was the first in Hancock to sponsor an exchange student through the organization. They hosted students from Mexico, South Africa and Italy.
His father had died in 1950 and Gary and his siblings worked in the family business. After high school, he worked there until his mother decided to close the business in 1961.
In 1962, Gary was hired as a substitute carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in Hancock. He then worked in distribution and as a window clerk starting in 1966 before being appointed postmaster in 1983.
“He received notes that said it couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” said daughter Tina Riesett of Baltimore.
The Breakalls lived in a house across from the post office until they built a home outside of town in 1971.
So that other postal employees wouldn’t have to work, Gary volunteered to work on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Through his work for the postal service, Gary “knew everybody and they knew him,” Tina said.
“When I’d say I was going to drop a note to somebody, he still knew the addresses,” Shirley said.
He also knew who was in need, and even though the Breakalls had plenty of firewood on their property, Gary would buy firewood from a needy family to help them out, Tina said.
“I think he helped a lot of people,” she said. “He did a lot of things for people, but they were done quietly.”
“If we had four oranges, we gave two away. That’s the way it was,” Shirley said. “We didn’t have a lot, but we had plenty.”
Gary retired in 1992 after more than 30 years of service.
“The community was sorry to see Dad retire, they liked him so much,” said daughter Debbie Henry of Hancock.
Gary had no desire to find a part-time job, devoting himself to his family and helping with the grandchildren.
“He retired to do whatever,” Shirley said. “The grandkids kept him busy.”
Whether it was building bird feeders for them, tapping trees for maple syrup, climbing a tree to get moss for a science project or on a ladder to retrieve a wayward helium balloon, Gary was game to help.
Gary also saw to it that Debbie’s daughter, who has cerebral palsy, and Terry’s children got on and off the bus OK.
Then, there were concerts and recitals for the grandchildren, including Tina’s children in Baltimore.
“We made him travel to Baltimore for concerts, recitals, Grandparents Day,” Tina said.
“He did for all of them,” said Shirley, although distance made it harder with daughter Penny Sue McKenzie’s family, who live in Illinois.
Every Christmas, Gary would pick out a funny gift for the grandchildren and last year, they all got musical Christmas hats, Tina said.
After retiring, two cross-country road trips with Shirley’s sister and husband allowed the couple to see “the north, south and through the middle” of the country, Shirley said. Gary liked to drive and did all of the driving for the group.
Years later, Gary also did the driving for their brother-in-law when he had medical appointments at Hershey Medical Center and Johns Hopkins Hospital since Shirley’s sister didn’t drive.
Gary also is remembered for taking a day off of work to drive the children of their family doctor to their grandfather’s funeral in Meyersdale, Pa., on a snowy day.
He and his brother-in-law also helped rescue three children from a burning apartment in the late 1950s, Shirley said.
Gary was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2003 and underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments.
In 2007, the cancer came back in his throat. By this past Labor Day, Gary’s health really began to decline.
Debbie retired as a teacher at Hancock Elementary School in July and had been helping Shirley care for him at home since. They devised a system of bells, whistles and monitors so they would know when Gary needed something.
“I said I’ll be hearing bells in my sleep for a month,” Shirley said. “They were a good idea.”
Gary was raised Catholic and served as an altar boy at St. Peter Catholic Church in Hancock. Terry said the priest was surprised at how full the church was for Gary’s funeral, a testament to the number of lives he touched over the years.
“He was funny. He carried on and joked with people,” said daughter Terry Smith of Hancock.
“He always had a joke for Dr. McCormack, even when he was feeling bad,” Shirley said.
Editor’s note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail runs “A Life Remembered.” Each story in this continuing series takes a look back — through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others — at a member of the community who died recently. Today’s “A Life Remembered” is about Gary F. Breakall, who died Dec. 7 at the age of 75. His obituary was published in the Dec. 8 edition of The Herald-Mail.
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