Church of Barbaro: Rallying Behind a Horse's Death

She owns Kennett Florist, which was the conduit between the fans and the horse during his long and mercurial hospital stay. Phone calls to the shop in the purple and pink Victorian house in scenic downtown Kennett were the FOBs first forays out of Brown's virtual world and into the real one. Berstler began as an observer of Barbaro-mania. Eventually, she would become messenger, translator, therapist and, to many, a friend. She understands why Brown's hits are climbing.

When Barbaro first arrived at New Bolton, just a few miles away from her store, the phone began ringing. Some orders took 20 minutes to complete; the callers were so distraught they couldn't get the words out for the card.

In the months that followed, she got her wholesaler to deliver carrots and apples, keeping gigantic bags in stock. Soon, she found that Barbaro liked tender baby green tops, so the shop carried those. Understanding people's need to do something, anything, she waived her minimum order requirement. Some deliveries, she lost money, but she was compensated in other ways. She still cherishes a letter from a nun, Sister Catherine, who thanked her for allowing those of modest means to contribute.

Somewhere along the way, she became one of them. She helped gather a collection for Richardson's birthday. Checks and cash arrived at the flower shop, until enough had been raised for Berstler to purchase a gigantic gift basket with rounds of golf, theater tickets, food, you name it. "One girl spent a whole day just driving," she says, "picking up everything."

She arranged for fans to pay for pizza deliveries for the hospital staff. She helped organize the fans paying for the Christmas party at New Bolton. There were homemade cupcakes, cookies and snack food in the ICU for the doctors and nurses.

"FOBs have a theory: Happy caregivers mean happy horses," Berstler says.

She designed a tree for New Bolton, each ornament bearing the name of an FOB. The tree topper? A Barbaro Beanie Baby. The horse, so he wouldn't feel left out, got a tree made of apples. And a specially made blanket, paid for by fans and delivered by Berstler. They were frantic it wouldn't arrive by Christmas, even though someone smartly pointed out that, well, you know, Barbaro doesn't know it's Christmas.

Indeed, the crates of mail and packages that arrived at Barbaro's stall were both slightly absurd and uplifting. Some came from Kennett Florist. Other things came directly to New Bolton. Someone sent holy water from Rome. The owners rubbed it on their horse, just in case. St. Francis medals and statues. An American flag from soldiers in Iraq. Freshly cut grass. Letters from kids. Literally vanloads of carrots. The staff members received long, heartfelt mail thanking them for their work.

"You got some where you were like, 'OK, put that in the wacky pile,'" nurse Jamie DeFazio says.

When Barbaro died, Berstler had to call people with outstanding orders to tell them their beloved horse was gone. The ones who heard it on television dialed up the flower shop, asking for Berstler, praying it wasn't true. She stayed in a back room, distraught, letting her staff handle the rest of the calls. When the day was finally over, she felt empty. A day before, she'd been part of a vibrant community. Now? She was alone.

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