URBANA — When Ned Filbey started public school in Urbana in the late 1950s, there were no special education classes. Experts advised then that children with special needs or developmental deficiencies should be put in institutions.
Bucking that trend, Nate and Mary Lou Filbey and their three daughters became Ned Filbey's special educators.
"We were very unique in that our parents insisted Ned go everywhere and be part of everything," said Kit Filbey of Mesa, Ariz., the oldest child of the late Nate and Mary Lou Filbey of Urbana.
Kit Filbey and her younger sisters, Madge Graham of Gainesville, Ga., and Melissa Pillari of Bay Village, Ohio, returned to their native Urbana last week when it became apparent their brother's health was going downhill fast.
A resident of Champaign Terrace in St. Joseph for about the last 25 years, Ned Filbey died Tuesday afternoon at Carle Foundation Hospital, where he was born 59 years earlier.
"Ned is the reason our family is so close," said Pillari, who was closest in age to her younger brother and was inspired to make a career in special education because of him. "We never felt Ned's disability was anything but a plus."
"Mom focused on the positive," added Graham.
"Because he was the youngest, we were all responsible for him," Kit Filbey said.
The three sisters eventually moved away from Urbana but came home frequently to visit Mr. Filbey, especially after their parents' deaths. Mr. Filbey also traveled — alone — by plane to visit his sisters.
Nate Filbey was a certified public accountant and a founding member of the firm of Filbey, Summers, Abolt, Good and Kiddoo. He died in 2001. Mary Lou Filbey was an assistant dean of women at the University of Illinois who died in 2007.
Ned Filbey had cerebral palsy along with other developmental delays, and wore braces on his legs as a youngster. His sisters taught him to walk but not until well after his third birthday.
Their mother, they said, conditioned Mr. Filbey to laugh when he would fall, accounting for his always-cheerful outlook and happy voice.
"He had to deal with a lot of adversity," said Pillari. "When he was in the hospital and I said I was coming, he said his favorite line: 'Can I help you?' His greatest joy was finding something he could do for us."
Mr. Filbey repeated kindergarten once in the Urbana public schools before educators told their parents there was nothing more they could do for their son. That led to the heart-wrenching decision to send him, at the age of 7, to an institution in Wichita, Kan., where he stayed for three years.
"It broke our mother's heart," said Graham.
"Mom wrote him a postcard every day, and she would have us write postcards to him," Pillari said, adding that their mother saved all of them.
"It wasn't until I picked up this book this past week that it hit me hard how difficult it was for Mom," said Kit Filbey, also a mother and grandmother.
Although his education was good at the Wichita institution, the Filbeys felt the living environment was not so good. After a year at home, he went to another school in Owensboro, Ky., for about a decade.
"It had a wonderful, warm living environment but unfortunately didn't provide any education," said Pillari. "If Ned were born today, he would be an entirely different person."
The Filbeys brought their son back to the community, and he lived for several years at Opportunity House.
His parents were tireless advocates for their son. Nate Filbey was on the original board of directors of the Developmental Services Center, founded in 1972. Ned Filbey became a DSC consumer in October 1978 and was working there up until his recent illness.
Suzy Requarth, a work site manager there, called Mr. Filbey one of DSC's "hallmark" figures whose "genuine compassion for others" would be sorely missed.
"The thing about Ned that's a little different is not only was he connected to the people in the workforce, but he had a way about him that he really connected with people in the community. People that saw Ned just once a month adored him," Requarth said, referring to his volunteer work at the humane society or his visits to the recycling center with aluminum cans.
Graham, who became Mr. Filbey's guardian after their mother's death, and Kit Filbey said they considered bringing their brother to Denver to live near them after their parents' death. But they realized then that their brother was where he needed to be.
"The love of community here in Champaign-Urbana was so strong, largely due to Developmental Services Center," Kit Filbey said. "I would take him to the farmers' market, and people came up and said, 'Hi, Ned.' The community embraced him," she said. "They have something special, a culture, here."
The sisters said during his last few days of life, Mr. Filbey had dozens of visitors from Champaign Terrace and DSC.
"That was the most touching part of the week, watching them express their love to Ned and listen to stories they told about how Ned had helped them, how he impacted their lives," Pillari said.
"We always felt we were Ned's family, but we realized he had a different family we weren't a part of ... who had given the everyday love to Ned when we couldn't be there," Pillari said.