In 2014, a fatal car accident tore a hole in three Whitley County families and left the community reeling. This is the third story in a three-part series about the families – what has helped them heal and how they are keeping their loved ones’ memories alive.
COLUMBIA CITY — “You never know what you can do until it happens to you.”
Cheryl Hoffman offers words of perseverance after her family suffered two devastating events, two years apart, that forever changed their lives.
In 2012, Hoffman’s husband, Kent, came home after a long day of working at the farm and planned to take a nap by the pool. Cheryl was out of state visiting family, their older daughters were grown and out of the house, and their son, Eric, who was 17 at the time, was out with friends.
Kent planned to clean the pool and grill something for he and Eric for dinner — but that didn’t happen. He went to lay down a towel on the deck of their above ground pool, and next thing he knew he fell through the railing and landed on the ground.
“He knew instantly that his neck was broken,” Cheryl said. “He couldn’t move.”
Eric came home and saw his father’s truck was there, but no sign of his father. Assuming he was taking a nap upstairs or in the basement, Eric went on with his evening but grew increasingly worried when his dad never turned up. He went outside at about 11 p.m. and called for his father, about five hours after the fall, and found him.
Eric called 911 and helped the first responders get his father into the ambulance. Doctors discovered that Kent had a C2 spinal cord injury — which is often fatal.
The teen took on a large responsibility, with his older sisters each over an hour away and his mom several hours away.
“Eric called me at about 1 a.m. When he called, I was like, ‘What’s the matter?’ It woke me up so fast,” Cheryl said. “He said he had something to tell me, but he didn’t want to tell me. I thought he got in trouble.”
Cheryl got on the next flight home, arriving shortly after Kent’s surgery. He was left with minimal function from the neck down.
Eric and his father shared a close bond, working together on the farm from the time Eric was a young boy.
“From the time he was little, Kent would take him to kindergarten and pick him up. He fed him lunch, they would go work at the farm. He was always with him,” Cheryl said. “At the hospital, Eric just looked so sad.”
Kent and Cheryl spent six months at Shepherd’s House in Atlanta while Kent underwent rehab, and when they returned, Eric was quick to jump in and help his father — taking him back and forth to the farm, feeding him lunch and helping his father with all of his new challenges.
The Hoffman’s 100-year-old home was remodeled to provide assistance for Kent, and their daughter Morgan moved home to assist as well.
Just as the family was getting used to its new lifestyle, more tragedy struck. Eric was killed in a triple-fatal car accident Nov. 29, 2014, along with his best friend Braden’s father, Joe Coffelt, and Savannah Labenz. Eric’s girlfriend, Breanna Waugh, was the lone survivor of the single-vehicle accident.
Eric was expected to inherit the Hoffman farm. He’d already purchased some land to be part of the 2,500-acre operation, which also has steers and hogs.
“I don’t think he ever got to see his first crop harvested,” Cheryl said.
None of the other Hoffman children are interested in the farm.
“When Eric died, we asked ourselves, what are we doing this for?” Cheryl said.
Three years later, Kent’s parents passed away within two weeks of each other. His mother had been in failing health, but his father died two weeks later in a farming accident.
“Now it’s just Kent with the farm,” Cheryl said.
Kent has several employees who help him with the work, but he still manages the operations at the farm, with bookkeeping help from Cheryl, who quit her job working for Whitley County Consolidated Schools to help her husband.
The saying goes that “time heals all wounds,” but Cheryl said that’s not true.
“You’d think as the years go by it would get easier, but it doesn’t,” Cheryl said. “I keep thinking about what he would be doing — things I wish I could have done differently. But you just have to keep on going.”
Cheryl enjoys talking to Eric’s best friend, Braden Coffelt.
“It’s been really hard on Braden to lose all of those people,” Cheryl said. “His world was torn apart that night, along with the rest of us. They were both fun-loving country boys who worked hard and played hard.”
Eric’s grave is still frequented by his many friends. Cheryl said Eric had more friends than she and her husband knew about.
“He had so many friends. After he died, people from all over came and talked to us,” Cheryl said.
One individual came to his funeral from Michigan. Eric met her at a rodeo in Ohio.
“Kent always jokes: ‘That explains where all the miles on his truck came from,’” Cheryl said.
Cheryl said people often don’t want to mention Eric in conversation to avoid causing hurt feelings, but she said the more friends and family talk about Eric, the more it keeps his name alive.
“Without friends, family and faith, we couldn’t get through it,” Cheryl said.