Waterford - A local pastor known for his hugs, soothing words and invitations to be closer to God, died Monday after a drowning incident in South Carolina on Sunday. His friends and members of two local congregations say they miss the Rev. Greg Hamby greatly.
"My heart is broken," said Sally Martin, 78, a member of the congregation at Quaker Hill Baptist Church. "I have known him since he joined the church. I saw his children grow up. Every Sunday he gave me a hug and kissed me on the top of my head."
Members of the congregations in Quaker Hill, where he served 17 years as pastor, and at the First Baptist Church in Essex, which he took over in January, said Hamby made them excited about going to church, made the Bible relatable to today's issues and comforted people whether they were church members or not.
Hamby, 52, was on vacation with his wife and teenage children at Myrtle Beach on Sunday when he was standing in the surf and fell, said Robert L. Edge Jr., coroner of Horry County, S.C., in a phone interview.
Friends helped Hamby out of the water in seconds, Edge said. He wasn't breathing, and bystanders performed CPR on him until firefighters and medics responded and took Hamby to Grand Strand Regional Medical Center in Myrtle Beach at 12:45 Sunday. He died from complications from the drowning incident at around 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Edge said.
"His death is just as upsetting as if a family member died," Diane Sullivan of Waterford said. "... I can't believe Pastor Greg isn't here. He is like who you would go to for comfort. It is a big loss."
Martin said she spoke with Hamby recently when she was volunteering at a convalescent home where Hamby's mother lives.
"I was glad I did it, gave him a hug and a kiss and told him how much I loved him," she said. "It gave me a little comfort."
Essex church deacon Mary Ann Blank said that in his last sermon, Hamby talked about God's love and forgiveness and the book "When Bad Things Happen to Good People." Blank said Hamby told the congregation the book doesn't answer the question everyone has, which is "why."
"I have tried to find the answer for that for a long time, and there is no answer to that question. The only thing that comes out of when something bad happens is it makes you realize how much the people that are in your life, that you love, are important to you and that you should let them know every day how important they are to you," she said.
Linda Bunnell, 58, of Uncasville said she and her husband hadn't gone to church in years, but after attending one of Hamby's services and seeing how much he loved his family and kids, they went regularly for five years.
Her husband even got his ear pierced to match Hamby's piercing, she said. Hamby loved the Boston Red Sox and would work stories about participating in Fantasy Football camps into his sermons, she said.
Martin said one quality that set Hamby apart was how well he could relate to youth. "The children loved him," she said. "I mean, they were always holding his hand and wanting to sit with him."
Sullivan said she is Catholic and a member of St. Joseph's Church but that when she needed someone to talk to, she would go to Hamby. Her nephew, Steven Perkins, was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 24, she said.
"He just painted a picture of something so beautiful and perfect that it just relaxed you and it kind of made you happy for our nephew," Sullivan said. "We were sad for us, but we were happy for him because he (Hamby) put him in such a picture-perfect place."
When his brother, Owen Perkins, was dying at age 64 in 2003, Hamby would visit him regularly in the hospital and put him at ease, said Donald Perkins of Quaker Hill.
The Rev. Amy Hollis of Winthrop Baptist Church in Deep River said she and others want to support the Essex First Baptist Church congregation.
"We can't change this horrible situation, but we will do the best we can to love and support them, and our prayers go out to this family in their heartbreaking loss," Hollis said.
Hamby leaves his wife Nancy and three teenage children, Nick, Hallie and Addison, behind.
No funeral arrangements have been announced.