STONINGTON — For the better part of the past decade, Seth Wakeman had served as the face of the Quiambaug Fire District while his wife, Joanna, provided support behind the scenes. Members of the agency are now mourning the sudden loss of the couple, which Quiambaug Fire District President John Garbarino called a "true tragedy for our community."
"I've known Seth for 45 years. He was one of those guys in the community who was literally connected to everything," said Garbarino, known more commonly by his nickname "Jack," during a phone interview Monday. "He was always dedicated to serving the town. This is a tough loss."
Seth Wakeman, 88, and Joanna Wakeman, 78, both of Montauk Avenue, suffered fatal injuries on Saturday night when they were struck by an alleged drunk driver while attempting to cross Greenmanville Avenue in Mystic. Police identified the two as the victims on Monday.
According to a police report, the two had just finished dinner at Latitude 41 Restaurant around 8 p.m. Saturday and were walking back to their car when they were hit by Carol M. Belli, 73, of Groton, as she was driving north.
Both were taken to Lawrence+Memorial Hospital in New London, where they were pronounced dead. Police said Belli, who remained on the scene after hitting the couple, showed signs of intoxication and was later charged with driving under the influence.
She was released on a $600 bond, according to police, and is expected to appear in New London Superior Court for arraignment on March 20. Police said the investigation remains active.
For those in the Quiambaug area, the couple's death marked the end of an era.
"There wasn't a person with a bad word to say about him — about either of them," said Garbarino said. "They were a perfect match, super people who loved the town and just loved life in general."
Theresa Hersh, public information officer for the Quiambaug Volunteer Fire Department, said Monday that Wakeman was always supportive of the department, its members and their needs in order to keep the community safe. Wakeman was a past president and the current vice president of the district's board of directors, a former fire policeman with the volunteer agency, and a longtime member of the Rotary Club of Mystic.
But his efforts and support often extended beyond the district to all volunteers in town said Hersh, who also serves as a member of the Stonington Police Department, Stonington Ambulance and assistant chief of the Stonington Borough Fire Department.
"Seth had a difficult job, balancing the needs of the community against those of the residents who fund our agency," she said. "He was always supportive of us and always willing to listen. If there was a true need, he'd find a way to make it happen."
Garbarino still recalls when he first met Wakeman, a chance encounter that began in 1973 when the two were bankers and began talking about their careers. Garbarino had just opened a branch of Union Trust, while Wakeman was working with Hartford National. He described Seth as a calm, level-headed man who was an avid fisherman and lobsterman in his spare time.
The two bonded almost immediately, he said, and soon became weekly participants at the Rotary Club luncheons, volunteering on a variety of fundraising projects throughout the community. They stayed in touch over the years, even when Seth and Joanna retired briefly to a home in Martha's Vineyard after his retirement — a summer home they kept that had some famous neighbors, including actor Ted Danson.
They came back to town about 15 years ago, Garbarino said, and Wakeman immediately resumed his service to the community, joining the fire department and fire district. In fact, it was a call from Wakeman that led Garbarino to join the board nearly a decade ago.
"I had a pretty good idea what he was trying to do," said Garbarino, joking that Wakeman was setting up to pass the torch to him. "With Seth, you just couldn't say no."
Hersh said members of the department have already begun looking for ways to honor him, noting that discussions between board members and volunteers have begun to name a new fire engine-tanker truck combination apparatus in his honor. She said Wakeman was essential in helping secure funding for the apparatus, which will be custom built and delivered to the agency within the next year.
As for moving on, Garbarino said it would be hard and those who knew the couple would never forget them.
"It's a real shock. To think this could happen, it's not something you really ever expect," Garbarino said. "He was a friend, a true friend, for almost 45 years. You just don't find people like that every day."