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Healing together

A family bonds together in the face of tragedy

- Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Troy Banning Brady, Becky and Max Harfst pose in the living room of the family home. The family, along with daughter and sister Hannah in North Carolina, are are staying strong and continue to support each other six months after the tragic death of Kent Harfst.

Becky Harfst grabs a box of Kleenex and places it directly in front of her. She rips one out of the box and dabs her eyes before she balls it up and places it on the rectangular table inside the dining room of her Webster City home. A second tissue is used to wipe her cheeks.

And so it goes for the next hour.

The tears come in spurts, sometimes as she smiles and laughs while telling a story and, yes, at times when the pain returns as she thinks back over the past six months.

Her sons, Brady and Max Harfst, sit stoically to her right. They’ve heard many of the stories, probably more times than they can count, but a few catch them off guard. They’ve shared in their mom’s pain, navigated through the same hell since their lives veered off course on the morning of Sept. 28, 2019.

More than a thousand miles away in Raleigh, North Carolina, daughter and sister

Becky and Kent Harfst on their wedding day

Hannah tackles the grieving process day by day. She has questions. She feels sadness, anger, remorse and so many more emotions.

Life isn’t always fair, the Harfst family knows that now.

At approximately 6:35 a.m. on that warm summer morning six months ago, Kent Harfst — loving husband to Becky and undeniably proud father to Brady, Max and Hannah — was tragically killed near Pierson, Iowa, in Woodbury County when his bicycle was struck by Aaron Albert, 19, of Mondamin on County Road D-12.

Kent, a Webster City fixture who couldn’t walk down any street without being drawn into conversation, was less than 30 miles into the Ride Across Iowa in a Day when the tragedy occurred.

He was just 57 years old.

Hannah Harfst and her father Kent

“I’ve never heard this story before,” Brady says as his mom details her first date with Kent nearly 30 years ago.

How that first date came about is a little uncommon and it brings out the animation in Becky. Kent was her boss at the Webster City swimming pool and her dad, Dennis Armentrout, held Kent in high regard. So he got on the phone and encouraged Kent to ask his daughter out on a date.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“My dad really thought a lot of Kent, but I was kind of in limbo,” Becky, who has owned The Dance Connection in Webster City for 31 years, says with a smile as she thinks back to her younger years. “I wanted to go to a play in Des Moines, so we went to Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up. We dated for a year and were engaged for a year. He showed up at my studio on a Friday night and asked me to marry him, and we got married a year later. Ironically, the first major gift he bought me was a bike.”

Brady, Max and Kent Harfst

As much as they were drawn to one another, Becky and Kent held differing personalities. Becky is a free spirit, someone who is boisterous with a desire to travel. Kent was more reserved, the type of person who observed more than he participated at times.

“Everybody that knows us, family included, knows we were kind of polar opposites,” Becky says. “But we just had a very good understanding of each other and respected what each other did. We trusted each other. There was never a moment in our marriage where I didn’t trust Kent.”

Brady, Hannah and Max followed, and over the next 28 years the Harfst family built a life for themselves in Webster City. As an employee for the city for more than 30 years, Kent dipped his toes in many ventures. At the time of his passing, he served as the assistant city manager and director of recreation and public grounds.

They loved each other, wholly and unconditionally.

“He was a great dad,” Max says. “I can’t remember a single sporting event since elementary school that he wasn’t there for.”

Kent Harfst

It’s those moments — those singular events in time that didn’t mean much in the present that now mean everything — that bring the greatest appreciation for what they had.

Something as simple as a weekend drive around the community will be forever ingrained in their memories.

“A week before he died, it was a rainy Saturday afternoon, and he was like, ‘Let’s go for a ride,'” Becky recalls. “Max and I were home … he was so proud of the Bonebright cabins and so he drove out there and was talking to us about it. Max and I were kind of wondering what we were doing, but he was just driving around and pointing out different things. That’s how much he loved this community. For 45 minutes, we just drove around and he pointed things out. It’s things like that that I remember.”

Kent’s family was his everything, something Becky and the kids all say they realize now even if it wasn’t always crystal clear. He loved his community as well. And then there was his bike, his training and his triathlons — personal passions until the very end.

Regimented on a daily basis — up early and out the door before the sun made an appearance, followed by a morning workout that usually involved swimming at Fuller Hall — Kent practiced what he preached.

He took part in 130 triathlons over the years, sometimes sleeping in his car with Becky the night before to save money. Hannah was by his side for five of them, a father-daughter bond that was special to both of them.

“It was nice to get him to myself and have that time,” Hannah says. “He always made sure we got a selfie after the race. He wouldn’t take a picture before the race because he considered that unlucky.”

Kent took part in RAGBRAI on numerous occasions too. His love of cycling took him all over the Midwest and as far as Cape Cod for a triathlon, but it was also the camaraderie with his twin brother, Kyle, and his fellow athletes that pushed him.

And it was also his escape from the pressures of the world. If he had a hard day at work, he could climb on his bike and go on an extended ride, his chance to breathe in life for just a few minutes.

Those triathlons, they’re a source of both happiness and sorrow for Hannah, who says she hasn’t had the mental strength to jump on a bike since the accident. That will change soon though and she has her dad to thank.

As someone who owned too many bikes to count over the years, much to the frustration of Becky, Kent had added another to his collection in the weeks prior to his death — a pink Trek for Hannah as a birthday present. He had been paying on it for several months and was scheduled to deliver it to his daughter in early October.

“He’d brought it home and put it in the basement … why did he bring it home and why did he show it to me?” Becky wonders. “I’m just so thankful for those little things because he was so excited about it.”

Hannah says her new bike will eventually make its way east, and when it does she will jump aboard and go for a ride. For her dad, and for herself.

“Once I get my bike here, I will ride again,” Hannah says. “I want to do more triathlons too. My dad made a picture frame full of his race numbers and I want to continue to do that. One day I want to have as many as he did, I think that would be cool.”

That Kent died doing what he loved is both a comfort and a curse for the family. Becky doesn’t shy away from the fact that she worried every single time he walked out the door to go for a ride. She didn’t want him to go on the Ride Across Iowa in a Day, but it was what he loved and who was she to say no?

“The minute he would walk into the house, I would take a silent sigh of relief because he was home,” Becky says. “Unfortunately, what I was worried about is what took his life. But I also respect it because he was so passionate about it.”

The morning of Sept. 28, 2019, is a blur for Becky, but Max has vivid memories of every detail of that day. Becky says the call came at 9 a.m., Max says it was 9:03 a.m. Regardless of the exact time, it was a phone call that changed everything.

“I got up at 9 and I had a missed call from Sioux City and I thought that was really strange,” Becky says. “I also had a text from the director (of the race) asking me if Kent was OK. So I texted Kent and asked if everything was going OK, knowing he wouldn’t be able to text me back. Then I called the number back and it was the emergency room (at MercyOne Siouxland Medical Center) and they put me through to the doctor that was on-call. He told me that Kent did not make it.”

Shock, that’s the only word that Becky can use to describe those early moments. She can’t remember crying right away; instead, she went into mom mode. Max was home, downstairs in the living room watching College GameDay, and after a conversation with him Becky had to make two of the most harrowing phone calls of her life — to Brady in Des Moines and Hannah in North Carolina.

“It was just a lot that you can’t prepare yourself for and I also think you don’t want to prepare yourself for because you’d live in fear every single day,” Becky says. Max compared his initial reaction to a heart attack.

“I couldn’t breath,” he said. “I was so in shock.”

Hannah remembers exactly where she was too when her phone rang — scooping out cat litter at her home.

“I yelled at (fiancee ) Joey (Koelbel) to answer my phone … when I looked at his face my mood immediately changed,” she says between sobs. “I remember seeing tears coming down his face and he wouldn’t hand me the phone right away. I remember yelling at him because I knew something was wrong. He handed me the phone and my mom just said, ‘Hannah, I have some news for you and we’re going to get through this.’ She wasn’t telling me right away, but when I heard it, I just lost it.”

Calling it the longest day of her life, Hannah and Joey eventually made their way to Iowa. Word of the tragedy had spread throughout Webster City and central Iowa by that time, and the outpouring of support soon followed.

Kent’s memorial service was moved to the high school auditorium and hundreds upon hundreds of mourners showed up to pay their respects. It floored the family, if they’re being honest, and yet it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. It was quickly apparent to the Harfst family that the entire community was grieving.

“He would have probably been mortified to see that there were 830 people in the high school auditorium,” Brady says with a slight chuckle. “He did not want to be the center of attention.”

That support brings the family comfort now. So too does the fact that Kent was an organ donor and doctors were able to harvest his corneas, as well as bone and skin from his arm.

“That day was awful, but you know, I’m so thankful for the life that we’ve had,” Becky says. “We’ve been given a lot more than a lot of people will ever experience and I wouldn’t change anything. I would change keeping him here, of course, but we are so lucky. And I don’t think Kent even knew the extent of the people he touched. As a family, he was just my husband and he was their dad. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

Becky pauses for a moment as the last six months filter through her mind. To say it’s been tough would be an understatement, but minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day the haze lifts a little more.

“Those first few months, I felt like I was foggy, like I couldn’t focus, and I cried all of the time,” Becky says. “I lost my passion for the dance studio for the first time and that scared me.

But it is becoming more manageable getting through the days, just trying to stay busy and getting through life. Some days are good, and some days it takes you back to that very day and all of the emotions come back.”

Christmas felt like the top of the mountain for the family — the toughest stretch of the climb, but the feeling of moving downward after it was over. They got through it together by being each other’s support system. Becky leaned on her children. The kids leaned on Becky.

“These kids have been beyond brave and strong, and they’ve shown such great character,” Becky says as the tears fall while she looks at her two sons. “We’ve all been hurting and we’ve all had our moments, but I’m just so proud of our three kids. If I’ve ever done anything right in this world, it was marrying Kent and having these three kids to carry on hi legacy.”

And there’s so much to look forward to. Brady recently moved back to Webster City to provide comfort for his mom and start a new job. Max changed his major at Iowa State to history education so he could follow in his father’s footsteps by giving back to a community, and Hannah is preparing for her wedding, set for June 13 in Webster City.

All three Harfst children say they’ve learned so much over the last six months. About their dad and about themselves.

“I think that you realize that you’re a lot stronger than you think you are,” Brady says. “You don’t know how you’re going to react until that bad thing happens and then you figure out how to get through the day.”

“It was pretty hard for the first few months,” Max says. “But once winter break came around, I came to realize that I don’t want to take days for granted. I want to make the most of each day, and so I evaluated how I could better myself. I didn’t know I was capable of improving myself this much.”

Hannah is very much looking forward to the day she says her vows and begins her life with Joey. But there’s also a bit of anger and sadness. A daughter’s wedding day is a momentous occasion for any dad; the chance to walk her down the aisle, lift the veil, kiss her on the cheek, and put her joy, her love and her life in the hands of another man. Hannah’s thought of all of this numerous times.

“Every time I think about that, I get emotional,” Hannah says. “I don’t really know what to expect … I’m just trying to make it more of an exciting thing for myself and make it happy instead of just sad. But at the same time, that’s really hard to do because that’s a big part of your life taken away in the same year as your wedding. It’s supposed to be about families coming together and your dad giving you away, so I just feel like that was taken away from me in an instant.”

Becky will be by Hannah’s side when she makes that slow walk down the aisle. It’s what Hannah wants. And she knows it’s what Kent would want too.

“She has been a rock for our family and I just don’t know how she does it,” Hannah says. “I know my dad would want that.”

June 13 will be a joyous occasion. The Harfst family will all be together, smiling and laughing as they welcome a new member into their brood. Kent will be there too, watching it all from above, no doubt with a smile on his face and love in his heart.

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