Couple hit by motorist maintained independence in spite of disabilities
CHAMPAIGN – Dave and Cindy Combs were the living embodiment of the mission of the Developmental Services Center.
Offered just a little helping hand, the couple who had intellectual disabilities were able to live fulfilling lives fairly independently in the community.
On Monday afternoon, their independence came to an end when their trademark tandem bicycle was struck from behind by a driver who was apparently distracted by looking at a map.
Cindy Combs, 53, was killed, and her husband, Dave, 51, was critically injured north of Bondville about 4:30 p.m. Monday.
Dave Combs was listed in critical condition on Wednesday afternoon at Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana.
"It's terrible. Everybody (here) knows Dave and Cindy whether they served them or not," said Dale Morrissey, chief executive officer of Developmental Services Center in Champaign.
"I have top-notch professionals who work for me. They get very, very close (to the clients). We feel like extended family. This is difficult.
"Many of the other consumers who receive services will have to work through this," he said.
They complemented each other well, said Morrissey, who's known both of them about 30 years, as long as they've been DSC clients.
Morrissey said Mrs. Combs was blind and rode on the back of the bike supplying pedal power to her husband, who was sighted.
"They literally rode thousands of miles a year," he said, adding that in bad weather, they rode the C-U Mass Transit District buses.
Valerie Lockett of Urbana, an MTD driver for about the last two years, called Cindy and David Combs "intertwined."
"She was high-functioning, just blind. She had a quick wit and was just hilarious," Lockett said. "He loved her so much. He took care of her and doted on her. It was beautiful. It really was. They were just waiting to get back on that bike."
Morrissey said while Cindy Combs had certain things she needed help with, she also had special skills to help her husband.
"David is sighted and it was cool the things he could do, being able-bodied, to help her," Morrissey said.
The couple was married at DSC in July 1986.
"About 22, 23 years ago, people with disabilities getting married was a really big thing. Both Cindy and David had differing needs of support," he said.
DSC staff helped the couple move into an independent living apartment on West Springfield Avenue.
"Our staff supports them in that apartment program," he said, explaining that they have trained the Combses in areas like paying bills, shopping and cooking.
Morrissey said Cindy worked primarily at DSC on projects for other clients. Dave worked at various jobs in the community but had recently marked his 10th anniversary at Staples on North Prospect Avenue in Champaign, where he was a part-time janitor.
"He made of a point of stopping by to tell me about his 10-year anniversary," Morrissey said.
And in the last three years, Cindy Combs had become an active advocate in the campaign to eliminate the use of the word "retarded" from the daily language of people, even making public appearances to talk about how hurtful the term is.
Both Dave and Cindy Combs were members of the Parkland Pops. Cindy was an alto in the Parkland Chorus. Dave was the head usher for the chorus, passing out programs and videotaping the performances, according to Barbara Zachow, chorus director.
Zachow said she has known the couple for most of the 22 years she has been at Parkland.
"She loves to sing. She's very good, partly because her ear is very, very developed. She hears things. She's always very, very friendly, and David and Cindy's love for each other is very pure and palpable. You can just tell," Zachow said.
The couple missed the Monday dress rehearsal for the chorus' Tuesday night spring concert. Because Zachow knew they had an afternoon appointment, she wasn't overly concerned.
"As soon as we saw the news that there was a tandem bike (hit), everyone in the chorus said, 'It's Cindy and Dave,'" she said.
Zachow planned to dedicate Tuesday's concert to the couple.
Sue Jones of Urbana met the couple through her participation in the chorus. It was there that she learned of their interest in bike riding. A member of the Prairie Cycle Club, Jones invited them to ride with the club, which they did with regularity.
"What kind of society would we be if people like Dave and Cindy didn't have a way to get where they need to go?" she asked. "Inviting them to join us is one of the things I'm going to be glad about for the rest of my life," Jones said.
"One time Dave told me Cindy was screaming on the way over to our bike ride that day because she was so glad to be coming," Jones said.
When the couple's bicycle was stolen a few years ago, Jones said, area residents bought them a new replacement tandem bike. Because of limited space in their apartment, Jones stored it in her garage over the winter. They had only recently picked it up for spring bike riding, she said.
Zachow said life for Cindy and Dave was never about having disabilities.
"They were just people. They wanted independence, and the bike helped give them that. They went to appointments, got to rehearsals. If the weather was really bad, someone would pick them up. She would come in and proclaim, 'I love my David,'" Zachow said.
"They're just precious people," she said.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell contributed to this story.