CLAYTON — Kerry Wahl knew she wasn’t going to ride off into the retirement sunset with her husband — no matter how much she wanted it. He was a devoted father, master mechanic, radio personality and selfless fireman who had grown tired of battling illnesses for years, but that doesn’t mean she expected he, as she puts it, would take matters into his own hands.
Hans Wahl, 56, was the rock of the Wahl Compound, which is a block of houses in Sand Bay where many Wahl family members live. He talked his son through his first high school break up. His loyalty, selflessness and loving nature is pronounced in his daughter. His intelligence and ability to commit acts of bravery and deny recognition inspired so many friends. He once saved six people after a boat exploded in the Clayton harbor and asked his name not be used in the subsequent news article.
And, for his wife Kerry, dating back to moment he walked up to her at happy hour and introduced himself in 1994, his tough confidence was enough to make her believe he could walk through fire.
It was 5:48 a.m. last Saturday morning when Hans wrote a post on Facebook, saying he had lived a life of service to others. He wrote that he tried to be good dad and enjoyed his time with Kerry, his wife. And then he wrote the sad truth was he had blood clots that would kill him anyway.
The final words in the post, which indicated, particularly in hindsight, that he intended to take his own life, were “It was a wonderful life.”
His wife of nearly 22 years, Mrs. Wahl, was still asleep when Mr. Wahl posted the note on Facebook. She was still asleep when he was next door, at his parents’ house, standing in the backyard in his mother’s garden. It was a safe space for him, Mrs. Wahl later said.
“I was preparing myself that I would lose him,” Mrs. Wahl said. “But I was expecting to lose him in a medical situation, but Hans was tired.”
She received a call from Hans’s sister at 6:33 a.m., saying he had been injured.
Before EMT personnel arrived, Hans was still responsive and able to tell his family he loved them.
He was set to be airlifted to Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, but after crashing in the ambulance, he was rushed to River Hospital in Alexandria Bay.
Mrs. Wahl’s understanding of what happened next was her husband was alive for up to 90 minutes before medical personnel pronounced him dead. She wouldn’t see her husband’s Facebook post for another two hours at least.
“I did not know,” Mrs. Wahl said. “He clearly had planned this out.”
Hans decided to take his own life, but the nature of how is not necessarily the point. Mrs. Wahl would rather use the phrase “he took matters into his own hands.”
It was 1994 in Chesapeake, Va., when she met Hans. She had been working at Volvo for seven years before he came on board, but they didn’t meet in the office. She saw him at a Friday happy hour and wondered why he was wearing a Volvo T-shirt.
“He came over and said ‘Hi, I’m Hans Wahl,’” she said. “And really, that was it. It took him two years to figure it out, but I knew.”
They started hanging out occasionally until they became an official couple in October 1996.
“It’s not that he was forward. He was just a matter of fact,” she said. “He was able to keep up both sides of the conversation.”
Hans proposed a year later and they married in June 1998.
His humor came out at the reception. When Hans reached for the wedding garter on Mrs. Wahl’s leg, like a rabbit out of a hat, he pulled out a Bugs Bunny puppet from underneath her dress.
After the wedding, the couple spent another year in Virginia. Hans was a service school instructor for Volvo in which he would travel around the country teaching students how to rebuild engines.
By 1999, they moved to Clayton and both started working at French Creek Marina, a business Hans’s family owns, which he would later co-own with his siblings and father. That was the same year they had Sabrina, their first child.
Growing up in Clayton, Hans and his siblings were constantly at the marina around boats for fun or for work. By 10 years old, he was starting to understand how a motor works.
“It wasn’t the marina or the work. It was this area,” said Katrina McFarland, his sister. “You fall in love with the boats, the wilderness and the river. Everybody who lives here starts to get whatever that is.”
Around 18 months after Sabrina was born, Mr. and Mrs. Wahl had their second and final child, Liam.
Liam, Sabrina and their mother said Hans taught the kids many principles while they were growing up, namely respect, character, forgiveness, honor, loyalty, love and being true to themselves.
Liam, who’s now 17 years old, said his dad would have liked to see him follow in his footsteps and be a boat mechanic.
“It wasn’t really for me,” Liam said. “He encouraged it, but he didn’t force it. He just wanted to see me choose my own career.”
As a result, Liam told his dad he was planning to join the Army.
“He was so thrilled to find out that is what I want,” Liam said. “He just wanted to see me glad.”
Liam and his father shared a love for music. Hans had taught himself the guitar, and they both bonded over Pink Floyd. He said one thing he’s going to miss the most about his dad is the long talks they had in the car. Liam remembers high school and the first time a girl broke his heart.
“My dad immediately said ‘We’re going to the gym,’” Liam said. “He purposefully took the long way to the gym so he could comfort me.”
Hans was known to have thought-provoking conversations with most people he interacted with. Kevin Oliver, a dear friend, will always remember Hans’s curiosity, and how he would gather as much information about any topic he was interested in at the time.
“Hans was extremely educated and had studied extensively,” Mr. Oliver said. “He was an all-around great guy.”
Hans mentioned a few things he had done in his life on Facebook Saturday morning. Like how he once saved six people from drowning.
Mrs. Wahl said Hans was 16 years old and at the marina and it was Labor Day Weekend when a boat in the harbor exploded. There were six people on board — most elderly — and all unable to swim.
She said Hans saw the explosion and quickly took a marina boat to the scene and began throwing a line for the people to grab, pulling them one-by-one to his boat and having them grab on to the side. Or he’d grab one of the drowning people and guide their hands to his boat.
All six people lived. Hans wanted no one to know what he had done. His family knew, and that’s all that mattered to him.
Hans sold himself a little short on that Facebook post as well. In his early 20s, he became a River Rat Reporter for an FM Watertown station. Dara Oliver, one of Mr. Wahl’s closest friends dating back to high school, said his morning show is what many people know him by.
“Hans was hysterical,” Mrs. Oliver said. “Everyone in Clayton knew who he was, but because he was on a Watertown station, he had a huge following.”
Mrs. Oliver said Hans was on the Maverick Ski Club team when they were younger. Because of his large size, he was always the base of the pyramid.
Mrs. Oliver was also on the fire department with Hans when she was an EMT. They went on many calls together, she said.
But above all, Mrs. Oliver’s takeaway was her friend would drop anything for anyone. When someone needed a ride from the airport in Syracuse, Hans would ask what time he needed to be there.
“He loved his friends and family so much,” she said. “If we needed help with anything, he would drop whatever he needed to be there.”
Hans’ health problems date back years, but a starting point Mrs. Wahl remembers was 2013, when he had a heart attack. Afterward, his health would stabilize, but really the only way to keep his cholesterol or blood pressure down was to have gastric bypass surgery. He had the surgery in 2016 and lost over 100 pounds.
Again, his health got better, but he was still in pain. All the years of working on boats and fitting into small spaces had taken a toll. And in 2018, he had a stroke.
He went to Upstate Medical University where he discovered there was a blockage in one of his arteries that was inoperable at that hospital.
Not 24 hours after leaving the hospital, Hans began having a stroke again. He had to be airlifted back to Syracuse, where he was assigned new doctors and told he should be under medical care full-time until he could have surgery on the artery.
In January 2019, Mr. Wahl got that surgery in Cleveland before returning home. He hadn’t had a stroke since, but he couldn’t work. His energy was low from the treatment and procedures, but it was punctuated by not being able to do what he loves: fix boats for people. It took a mental toll, as is common with most people whose careers are passions.
In August 2019, Hans had hip replacement surgery and got an infection from it. He had to remain in the hospital for six weeks.
“That’s probably the beginning of the end,” Mrs. Wahl said. “But we didn’t know that at the time.”
By January 2020, two blood clots were found in the same artery he had surgery on in Cleveland. If he were to have a stroke again, Hans could have been paralyzed from the shoulders down.
“He walks through fire,” Mrs. Wahl remembers thinking. “I did think he was going to be OK, whether he had one year or four years left.”
And then the coronavirus pandemic washed over the world. Hans is a social person. He couldn’t work, but that didn’t mean he didn’t go to the corner store to get coffee and chit chat. He still would see friends and go out to dinner. Now the isolation was doubled.
He was tired of the doctors, hospitals, medication and not being able to do what he loves. He had become withdrawn and understandably fearful of having a paralyzing stroke. So, yes, Mr. Wahl took matters into his own hands.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be this early,” Mrs. Wahl said. “But I’m just so glad he’s not in pain.”
Both of her children share that sentiment of being glad their dad isn’t hurting anymore. His oldest child, Sabrina, 19, said her dad encouraged them to love every day as hard as they could. “He was a lover,” she said. “His hugs felt like home.”
Sabrina also said her dad was an organ donor before he died, and they were told he will likely help multiple people.
And that’s the point, to expand on Hans’s message on Facebook and to highlight how his life really did turn out to be wonderful.
“All he ever wanted to do in his life was to help people,” Sabrina said. “And for that to be his last action is so fitting. It gives him peace that he is able to still help people.”