Bernie and Phyl share a long-kept secret
After 40 years, furniture retailers go public about her fight with multiple sclerosis
DELRAY BEACH, Fla. - Furniture gurus Bernie and Phyl Rubin were sitting back last week on a plush, papaya-colored couch in their Florida home, and for once, Phyl was doing most of the talking.
There were no sales pitches for loveseats, dining room tables, or bedroom sets. Instead, Phyl, after 40 years of silence, was detailing her struggle with a debilitating illness that has left her blind in one eye and numb from her hips to her feet and makes her head shake uncontrollably at times.
She has multiple sclerosis, an unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that affects about 400,000 Americans.
Phyl has guarded her condition for decades, putting the company before her personal problems, but now the 70-year-old Roxbury native is speaking out.
Starting tomorrow, she will appear with her husband, Bernie, in public service announcements in the hope of using her local fame to raise awareness and help others with the disease. In May, she will be honored by the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.
“This gives me an opportunity to speak out and to help end this horrible disease,’’ Phyl said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.’’
Phyl says she has continued to enjoy an active lifestyle, despite her illness, and for that, she feels fortunate.
This revelation is a major departure for Bernie and Phyl. Although known for the folksy, ordinary-couple tone of their ads, they have fiercely protected their private lives as they built one of New England’s largest furniture empires.
Phyl’s disease was rarely discussed among family and friends, and a code of silence of sorts was observed at the chain.
“Phyl’s just fine’’ was the mantra usually repeated by Bernie and their three children, who work at the company - even as the symptoms of her illness, such as her head tremor, became more obvious and raised questions among employees and customers.
“I am a private person,’’ Phyl said. “I didn’t think it was anybody’s business.’’
The numbness Phyl still feels in her legs began while she was driving to a supermarket in Florida during Christmas vacation in 1971 when she was 31 years old. The loss of feeling spread to her chest, and Bernie, who was starting a beverage business in that area, drove to the hospital on New Year’s day. They called in a neurologist from the golf course. At the time, the doctor couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
“He said I was either very sick or I was imagining it,’’ Phyl said. “I wasn’t imagining it. I felt like punching him.’’
Soon enough, she had no control over her hands and couldn’t brush her teeth or comb her hair. Bernie abandoned the fledgling beverage business and moved back to Boston to be with the family.
Two years later, while watching Johnny Carson on television Phyl saw what appeared to be a thin line on the screen. When she woke up the next morning, she could not see out of her left eye.
“I was frightened. I didn’t know what was going on,’’ she said as she looked down at her feet, her pedicured toes - still numb today - poking out of black patent leather sandals.
At that point, the doctors believed it was multiple sclerosis, but it was a diagnosis the couple didn’t share openly with their children, at that time ages 5, 11, and 13.
“She didn’t want to get the kids involved. They were very young. They knew she had a problem,’’ Bernie said. “I was afraid. I worried about her being sick, being in a wheelchair. But I never ever said it to her.’’
They learned to live with her condition and soon turned their attention back to business.
After Bernie’s furniture trucking company began to fall apart in the early 1980s, the couple decided it was time to start a furniture store business together.
In 1983, with Phyl’s multiple sclerosis attacks still coming on frequently, the husband-and-wife team opened a shop in Quincy and then one in Weymouth the next year. It was hard work for anyone, and for Phyl, it could be grueling. She worked seven days a week, and at one point, she couldn’t walk straight or use the stairs. Phyl still showed up to work - over Bernie’s objections - and stuck to one floor of the showroom in Weymouth.
“I was a little bit frustrated,’’ Phyl said. “I concentrated on helping start the business. If I felt I could do my work, I would.’’
She never rescheduled the endless filming for Bernie & Phyl’s commercials, even when she wasn’t feeling well or the disease took a toll on her appearance.
About 10 years ago, Phyl began trying some experimental drugs. One medication made her hair fall out. She wore a wig for a couple of years until it grew back.
“I was a public figure,’’ Phyl said. “I represented Bernie and Phyl, and I wanted to look my best.’’
But her thinning hair triggered rumors that she had cancer. When her tremor became more noticeable, customers and employees questioned whether she had Parkinson’s disease. Comments - some supportive, some not - were posted online and e-mailed to Bernie.
One post on a local website: “I have been watching the Bernie and Phyl commercials for years. I noticed lately that [Phyl] seems to have a . . . tremor. Is she okay?? It will be sad to see them fade off . . . they have become icons of the furniture world. I wish them well,’’ wrote a person identified as “a loyal viewer.’’
Meanwhile, Bernie said, he was “constantly getting phone calls and e-mails asking about Phyl. “Most of the time I’d just say she’s fine. It’s been that way since day one. Most of the nasty e-mails I never told her about. You get mad but what can you do?’’
Their oldest son, Larry, who joined the business in 1989 and now serves as president, said it was definitely a “tricky situation.’’
“When you’re on TV and you’re trying to promote your company, you want to put forward the best public image,’’ Larry said. “You don’t want to raise questions. . . . We want to sell furniture, we want to promote our furniture store.’’
Even as Phyl saw public figures like Ann Romney, wife of former governor Mitt Romney, come forward and talk about their struggle with multiple sclerosis, Phyl wasn’t ready. She was focused on the business and staying well.
Her last major attack happened about five years ago, when she lost her footing walking down the stairs at a restaurant in Braintree. She hit her head and blacked out, requiring a trip to the emergency room.
These days, Phyl is living on the ground floor and avoids stairs. The latest medication, a daily injection of Copaxone, appears to be working.
The Rubins have been turning over their business to their three children over the past few years, and spend most of the winter at their second home in Florida. Bernie and Phyl appear less often in the commercials, though the transition hasn’t been easy.
“It was more or less my baby,’’ Phyl said of reducing her role at the company. “It was difficult walking away.’’
But now that they are semiretired, Phyl is more comfortable speaking about her illness. She may never have gone public had it not been for a serendipitous meeting between her son, Larry, and Douglas E. Bryant, a Wells Fargo banker.
Bryant was in Bernie & Phyl’s waiting room at the Norton headquarters when he spotted a certificate from the MS Society for a donation the chain had made. Bryant, who serves on the board for the MS Society’s local chapter and has a daughter with the disease, recognized the logo and asked Larry about the certificate.
Larry, in one of his rare disclosures, told Bryant that Phyl had battled multiple sclerosis for 40 years. A few weeks later, Bryant asked if the MS Society could honor Phyl at this year’s gala.
“Phyl is so inspirational,’’ Bryant said. “She really shows what you can accomplish in spite of MS.’’ Phyl agreed, and despite her discomfort with the spotlight (at least when it’s not on furniture), offered to film public service announcements. She is also setting up a fund to raise money for research and help find a cure for the disease, which is three times more likely to affect women than men.
“It’s important to show people are living a fulfilling life with MS,’’ Phyl said during the interview, as she turned to her husband of more than 50 years. “But it’s a horrible disease, and I want to help people and find a cure.’’
Bernie, who sat quietly on the couch for most of the interview, could not contain himself any longer, bursting out with admiration for his wife and gushing about the joyous life they have shared.
“We are the luckiest people,’’ Bernie said. “There’s a lot of ups and downs in life. Nothing ever goes smoothly. But when all is said and done, we’ve had a nice ride.’’
Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.