It was a story John J. Harbinson never tired of telling: how he met his wife in bed.
He was a young man in the hospital after a car crash left him with a broken arm and a broken neck, encased in a cast from the waist up. But he felt well enough to pay attention to the pretty nurse who tended him. He married her, and he and Marlene spent the next 66 years together, with Harbinson showing “an incredible love and unconditional loyalty for my mother that I have not seen in any marriage, ever,” said his daughter, Mary Pat Fitzpatrick of Edina.
Harbinson, of St. Paul, died Aug. 10 at age 93 of complications from pneumonia. He spent nearly 35 years as an officer with the Minnesota Highway Patrol, including seven years as chief, before retiring in 1985. During his tenure, he worked to improve the professionalism of the patrol and to upgrade its equipment and safety procedures.
Harbinson also was a tireless advocate for driver safety. After his retirement, he served as the executive director of the Minnesota Seat Belt Coalition and as state coordinator for Operation Buckle Down, a national effort to encourage seat belt use.
And it was in retirement when his lively and loving personality came into full flower, his daughter said.
“Once he became a grandpa, he turned into a total marshmallow,” Fitzpatrick said. “The way he’s been ever since he’s been a grandpa and retired and had time, he’s incredibly observant. He will notice one funny little thing someone said, and he’d turn it into a funny story and entertain himself and everyone else.
“When he talked, it was like his heart came up into his face,” she said. “His eyes would twinkle and his voice would raise.”
Harbinson was born in Minneapolis and moved with his family to a farm in Forest City, Minn., when he was 6. One of nine children, he slept in the attic with his five brothers. Harbinson served in the Navy during World War II, graduating from St. Cloud State College after his service and joining the Highway Patrol in 1951.
He and Marlene loved to dine out and were regulars at Mancini’s Char House in St. Paul, where they knew all the cooks and wait staff.
“If they were at the lake with us, they’d sit in the bar, not the restaurant,” Fitzpatrick said. “They wanted to be with the young people, they wanted to be in the action. And they’d talk to everyone and they’d know all the details.”
In his later years, his family gave him a retired Navy veteran hat, which he loved to wear. Once, his daughter recalled, a man came up to him and said, “Thank you for your service. I’m a retired Marine.”
And Harbinson, with a twinkle in his eye, jokingly replied, “Well, I don’t think we’re supposed to like each other.”
Harbinson was in hospice care after doctors gave him two weeks to live, but he hung on for five weeks, his daughter said.
“He wanted to protect [Marlene],” she said. “That’s why he hung on for so long. He wanted to go out strong, and he did. Until 10 days before [his death], he was still using his walker.”
He was a favorite of the aides who tended him, she added.
“They would come in to talk to him and he would throw kisses,” she said. “Some I would see kind of confiding to him about their lives. He was kind of an ear for them.”
In addition to Fitzpatrick and his wife, Harbinson is survived by sons Paul and Tom; daughters Jane and Betsey; three brothers, a sister and 11 grandchildren.
Services have been held.