By JOHN T. WARD
Six years into a personal gut job, Cole Porter had transformed himself from a heavy-smoking, overweight electrician and handyman into… well, as his wife, Megan, put it, in a comically theatrical voice, “Cole Porter, you are ironman!”
Ironman as in triathlete: swimmer, biker, runner. He’d gone all-in, and with such infectious energy that she followed his lead, as their two young daughters later did, too. It was something they all did together now. Even Faye, at age 10, had already completed an adult sprint tri.
At age 38, though, Porter had decided he would focus on cycling for the coming year. And onlookers that sunny September morning in Fair Haven should not have been fooled by all his laughing and chatting at the starting line – so much in fact that a race official asked him, please, sir, can we have your attention? That was just Porter being his irrepressible self. Inside, he carried a determination to win.
And, as if right on script, as the pack of whirring racers completed the first lap of the first race, Porter was in the lead when he spotted his three “girls” standing on the sidewalk.
Megan raised her camera and snapped a photo as he approached. He was smiling that smile that had captivated her from the day they met.
Seconds later, there was a crash.
Firefighters ran a race in central Poland in memory of Cole Porter three days after his death. Below, a fellow athlete painted one of Porter’s bikes his trademark pink and left it at the spot of the accident the day he died. (Photo above by Jacek Staśkiewicz. Click to enlarge)
Megan Porter is at home now, in every sense of the word. She’s sitting at a table in a cozy kitchen in Shrewsbury with exposed, farmhouse-style joists running across the ceiling to a side door where sunlight pours in. Visible across the street is the Shrewsbury Borough School, where Faye, now 11, and her sister, Lily, 7, are students. Where Megan herself went to school.
She grew up in this house, one with deep roots. It was built in the 1760s. Her parents bought it in 1974. “It was condemned, I think,” she says. They fixed it up and raised their family there.
Meg, now 39, was in her early 20s when she met Cole Porter through friends. He grew up in Holmdel. Her mom had been from Holmdel. In fact, he’d been friends with a cousin of Meg’s before she met him.
She was captivated by him, by his outsized personality.
“He had this presence,” she said. “You wanted to know what he had to say. You wanted to listen to him. You wanted to talk to him.”
And that grin.
“Just the smile that he had,” she said. “It was amazing. I could see him coming up the walk today.”
She’d come home on a break from the job she’d just returned to, at a small investment banking firm in Shrewsbury, to speak with redbankgreen about the events of the prior two months, and about the future.
Meg and Cole got married on September 23, 2000, and moved into a house in Holmdel that his grandfather, a volunteer firefighter, had built.
For the first year or two, “we just kind of plugged along,” Megan said. But then Faye was born, and “after you have kids, you start to grow up a little bit.”
In 2007, her mom, Michele Damen, known as Mikki, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was still shy of 60 years old.
“It got us thinking about our children,” Meg said. “We were both heavy smokers. We were headed toward that – a short life, probably.
“We didn’t want to have to tell our kids that we had a disease because of something we chose to do,” she said.
So they quit smoking. They got into running.
Strike that: Cole got into running. Meg admits she resented it a little, the excitement he was experiencing, the changes. So she strapped on a pair of running shoes, too. An athlete in high school, she found she was good at it, and had a yen to get better.
“You get this bug,” she said. “You want to see how much faster and further you can go. It’s addictive.”
From the outset, the kids were involved. They went as a family to compete and to cheer one another on. The cheers were for Lily last June, when she ran her first 5k race.
In 2010, Mikki Damen died in the Porter’s home, where Megan, Cole and the girls had set up hospice. Megan would later look back with appreciation that the girls got to be part of that, witnesses to the closing of the life cycle.
Afterward, Meg could have sold her mom’s house, but she’d always imagined coming back, making it a home for her family, she said. It needed a ton of work, but no problem. Cole knew carpentry as well as wiring. He’d fix the place up.
He did. But that turned out not to be enough activity for him. He’d always wanted to be a firefighter, like his grandfather and other relatives. So at age 37, he joined the all-volunteer Shrewsbury Hose Company #1.
That first year, he was firefighter of the year. He had a winning way.
When Hurricane Sandy demolished Union Beach, he was up there, too, working cleanups, helping displaced residents find their belongings, getting them back into their houses. The tri club the Porters were members of, called the Soldier’s Race Team, had been sending packages to soldiers overseas, but started helping out a wounded vet in Union Beach, and then branching out to help others help rebuild. The group also raised $40,000 to provide Christmas gifts not just to kids, but adults. Toys, clothes, appliances – whatever they needed, they could go to the first aid squad and just take it.
“He orchestrated the whole thing,” Meg said.
He sounds, well, perfect.
“No, he was not perfect,” she said. “I can attest to that; I’m his wife. But he was an incredible man. If he loved something or enjoyed something, he was passionate about it. He always stuck his hand out without any expectation of getting something back.”
The Tour de Fair Haven race, the first of six scheduled for September 15, was also Cole’s first cycling race, as opposed to one that was part of a tri. As the pack neared the start-finish line in front of the firehouse on River Road, completing lap one, Megan snapped what turned out to be the final photo of her husband.
“I could see that he was smiling,” she said. “I was the last person he saw.”
“He was going to win,” she said, with emphasis. “His last thoughts were, ‘I’m going to win this race, and there are my girls.’ ”
What exactly happened next will likely be sorted out in litigation. Megan’s lawyer, Ray Gill, said he filed papers Tuesday putting the borough and other government agencies on notice of a possible lawsuit.
What’s been reported, though, is that chief race referee Dan Donnelly tried handing off a handheld radio to someone in the pace car as it led the racers past the firehouse. The radio fell short, hitting the asphalt. Donnelly went to retrieve it, and was in the roadway when Porter smashed into him at full speed.
Meg saw it. Her daughters saw it.
“I heard the impact,” Megan said. “I can hear it still.”
In that instant, she said, “I knew. I knew after hearing that that he was not going to live. I knew he was not going to survive. And I don’t think it will ever go away, that sound. It was horrifying. Absolutely horrifying.”
She and the girls ran to the scene. The street went quiet, she said, and then the girls started crying. Someone told Meg, “get the kids out of here.”
Porter had suffered a massive brain trauma. He was helicoptered to Jersey Shore Medical Center in Neptune and put into a medically induced coma.
Within hours of the accident came an eruption of emotion on social media. Friends created the Porterhouse Support Group Facebook page, where hundreds of tributes and messages of hope were soon posted, many by fellow athletes, but many also by people who had never met Cole.
“He had this ability to talk to people like he knew them forever,” Meg said, by way of explanation.
But the outpouring of love and respect “was overwhelming, in a good way,” Megan said. “I was floored. I still am.”
Events were organized in Cole’s name. A regular Tuesday night bike ride out of Red Bank’s Red Bicycle Studio that Porter was a fixture on went off as usual, with dozens of riders wearing his favorite color: shocking pink. The route was detoured to pass the Porter family homestead in Holmdel.
There was Swim for Cole, too, at Sandy Hook. Megan swam that event, one of 40 in pink swim caps. She had to, she said. Cole would have wanted her to. Not for him, but because she could.
He was on life support for two weeks before they could even do an MRI. But Megan says she had begun the mourning process, and was beginning to plan for life after Cole. “Because I knew,” she said.
She told the girls where things stood, being truthful but not blunt. She told them, “I don’t know what’s going to happen. He’s hurt. He’s hurt real bad.” She let them know he had a severe brain injury, and “was in bad shape.” Not sugarcoating it. Keeping them aware “in an honest way,” while avoiding scary terms like “coma,” and instead saying their father was was “medically sleeping.”
The girls got to say goodbye before the life support was withdrawn on October 3, less than three weeks after the accident.
The Facebook posts continued for weeks. From friends, acquaintances. Strangers also, were caught up in the anecdotes, the photos, the torrent of affection, the sense of loss.
In central Poland, a group of firefighters ran a 10k race, dedicating their efforts to the memory of Cole Porter, according to a Facebook post.
While Cole was in the hospital, an uncle of his reminded Meg, “the last people he saw was you and the kids. How many people get to see that as the last thing they see?”
“That has helped me a lot,” Meg said. “Knowing that not only was I the last person he saw, but that there was nothing in our relationship and our life that was left undone.
“There were no regrets,” she said. “Everything was right in Cole Porter’s life when he passed away. He had done it all.”
Knowing that, and having the support of family and friends, is how she’s been able to rally herself for this chapter of her life, she said. The sense of completeness.
The hardest moments? Coming home after work. Most nights, Cole would get there before her, and he’d have dinner ready, or ready for her to serve if he had a workout scheduled.
But “I’m not a mess,” she said. “I’m capable of going to work and moving on and getting back to a new normal. As horrific as the situation is, I can’t deal it with any other way than I’m dealing with it now.”
She’s sticking to the schedule of races she had mapped out with Cole. The next big one is a weekend of competitions in Ohio, called the Triple T, in May. She’s traveling there with a large group of people she and Cole knew.
“I know what he would want for me,” she said. “I mean, we talked about this throughout our relationship. We talked about the whole, ‘what would you do if?’ He would want me to stick with the plan, to move on, to get on with life, to enjoy life, to play, and to love again. He wouldn’t want it any other way, for me and the kids.
“I know that he’s always going to be my rock, no matter where I go or what I do.”