CARBONDALE — The human toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of no bounds. It has surpassed the amount of American lives lost during the 1900 Galveston hurricane, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, the Revolutionary War, the Korean war, the Vietnam War and World War I.
Nationally, about 192,000 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died this year. Of Illinois’ nearly 8,500 deaths, the majority have been of people living in Chicago and the surrounding area. But this region has not been spared — throughout 21 Southern Illinois counties, 138 people diagnosed with COVID-19 have died since April. Following national trends, the majority of deaths here — 96, according to the latest state figures — have been of older adults in nursing homes. But the virus has also claimed the lives of Southern Illinoisans as young as their 40s. While it is well established that the virus is the most deadly to people with underlying health conditions, at least some whose lives it has claimed were considered the picture of health.
The virus, which currently has no vaccine and no cure, has been called “insidious” by state leaders, and one that “doesn’t discriminate” — it can impact those from all walks of life despite age, race, economic or political background.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton joined community faith leaders at First Presbyterian Church in Springfield on Wednesday night for a memorial honoring those who have died of COVID-19 and their families.
“Even in our most difficult moments, in some ways especially in our difficult moments, we have to remind each other it's okay to grieve. It’s okay to weep. It’s okay to feel, for a few moments, that the world is crashing down on you,” Pritzker said. “Let’s allow this pandemic to remind us of at least one important thing: We need each other. We need each other.”
While charts, graphs and data surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic inundate our daily lives, Stratton said it’s important to remember who these people were — our family, friends and neighbors — and that they are more than just a number. “Memories have texture and depth and allow us to continue to cherish (those) … taken from us by this deadly virus called COVID-19,” she said. “Our loved ones are more than a number — they’re people. They are our memories and forever a part of our present.”
The Southern Illinoisan spoke with several families throughout the region about their loved ones whose lives were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Several people said they hope their families’ losses serve as a wake-up call to people in Southern Illinois who believe the virus is a hoax or the response to it is overblown. Below are their stories:
‘Day by day’
Whitney Burks, who has lived in Carbondale most of her life, remembers her father, Christopher Cohen, as a humble man and someone who loved his family dearly. While he wasn’t her biological dad, Burks said he never treated her or her siblings any differently than children of his own blood.
When Burks’ mother and Cohen went their separate ways, he didn’t stop caring for them and took her younger brother under his wing and moved to North Carolina. He was someone who stuck up for the underdog, she said, no matter their walk of life or personal circumstance. “He was a protector,” Burks said. “My daddy said he didn’t care what the circumstance was, he just did whatever he had to do to make you feel like a human being.”
Cohen was recently diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus and his family wasn’t able to see him before he died alone in bed three days later. Burks said he was otherwise a healthy 64-year-old man.
The fact that Cohen had gone from being “a completely healthy” and “strong” man to passing away from the virus left Burks’ family distraught. “I go back to the grave every week. I just sit there and cry — I miss my daddy, I was a daddy’s girl.”
Under normal circumstances, families are able to grieve the loss of a loved one through funeral services, often surrounded by family and friends. In the age of the COVID-19, there have been challenges for families, including some cases where they are not able to be near loved ones for their final moments and restrictions surrounding the subsequent funeral arrangements.
“We weren’t able to go look at his body. We had to do it behind a glass. We weren’t able to give him a proper funeral,” Burks said while adding it took weeks for her family to be able to receive Cohen’s body due to the pandemic.
As Burks and her family were waiting for her father’s body, they went to visit Clyde Donald Claytor II, her grandfather, at a local hospital because he had also fallen ill with COVID-19. By the time Burks had left and returned to the hospital three days later, he was dead — two days after the death of her father. The two men are buried next to each other at Oakland Cemetery in Carbondale.
Her grandfather was a soft-spoken “working man” with an infectious smile, a “humble” father of eight and someone who stuck around for his loved ones — through thick and thin. “Because of men in my life, like my grandfather, I can never tell anyone I never had a male role model,” Burks said.
Clyde Claytor III, his son, said his father was a pioneer in his craft and served as the first Black man to work as an engineer for Commonwealth Edison Electrical in Chicago. He recalls growing up and having the men in his family — including his father, grandfather and uncle — show him the ropes, and they even were able to work on a project for legendary boxer Mohammad Ali.
Growing up, Claytor III said, his father would speak affirmations to him and the rest of the children — ”you are beautiful, you are top-of-the-line, you’re the head of the class.” He thought his children and grandchildren were the best, Burks said. While at a local store, they found a greeting card with many of the similar affirmations on it — Claytor III and Burks said they believe it’s a sign from him.
Reflecting on the events surrounding her loved ones’ deaths, Burks said she wishes things would have played out differently.
“I have been to regular funerals and I just feel like, even though it was nothing we could control and nothing we could do, I felt like my granddaddy and my father were not properly sent off,” she said.
The funeral services, Burks said, lacked something she couldn’t quite put her finger on at first.
“It felt like they had no love,” she said. “No one was able to come and we had to go in one by one to see him. There was no pastor. It was just a horrible, horrible thing.”
The last several months have been difficult for Burks and her family. A situation, she said, has left her feeling like her “spirit is frozen” and just takes things “day by day.”
Despite the turmoil the pandemic has caused Burks’ family, they continue to celebrate the lives of their loved ones and the impact they have had on their lives. The silver lining in the events surrounding the deaths of two pillars of their family, Burks said, has made their family bonds stronger. “It hurts to bury those two, but it has strengthened our family,” she said.
Burks said she encourages the community to heed the advice of medical professionals during the pandemic. “ If you’re asked to put on a mask, just wear the mask — it’s not going to kill you,” she said. “It may be an inconvenience, but to be aware is to be alive.”
‘You did good’
Scott Miller’s sudden death of COVID-19 in August left friends and family in shock.
Though an older adult, he was in great physical health and highly active. Miller was a runner most of his life, but around age 65, switched to swimming because of back pain. He took classes to learn to swim properly. Then, he and his wife, Kim Miller, joined the Saluki Masters Swim Club, through which they participated in rigorous daily coached swims at the SIU Rec Center for years, prior to the pandemic halting classes in March.
He was also an avid biker, golfer and vegetable gardener. Staying busy enjoying the “simple things in life” is what brought him a lot of pleasure and he was never one to spend his retirement snoozing all day in front of the television, his wife said. Scott was thin, built like a runner, ate a healthy diet, and had no known underlying health conditions.
Kim said that she and her husband took the coronavirus seriously. Though social creatures, they limited outings and wore masks and socially distanced when they did get out.
When Scott first started feeling bad on Aug. 22, a Saturday, they chalked it up to overexertion and dehydration. They figured he might have overdone it in the heat while the couple was in the process of moving homes that week. With both retired and their children grown, they decided it made sense to downsize from their large home on six acres in rural Jackson County into a smaller house in Makanda. They were set to close that Wednesday and were moving quickly to finish packing.
Scott continued to work on the move the following day, but had to take more breaks than is typical for him. By Monday, his condition had worsened, though he kept trying to push through.
Kim said that he had gotten up before her, and when she walked downstairs, she saw her husband hunched over the counter by the coffee pot, seemingly in pain. She asked him what was wrong and he told her that he could hardly move his legs.
She took over making the coffee and then they both got online to look for clues as to what could be going on. By this point, his pain seemed more than a typical pulled muscle from straining to lift a heavy box. Scott mentioned that it could be COVID-19 — there are cases, though rare, where the primary symptoms are severe muscle and joint pain. Though, he didn’t have any of the typical signs of COVID-19, such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath.
Kim was skeptical, but they decided it wouldn’t hurt to get a test. That Monday, they went to a drive-thru Shawnee Health Center testing center, but results can take several days to get back. By that afternoon, he was feeling so bad that they decided he should visit the emergency room.
Because of protocols limiting visitors, she dropped him off at the door. Carbondale Memorial’s emergency department was busy and Scott had to wait three hours after checking in before he was taken back to an exam room, Kim said.
He was not initially screened for COVID-19. Instead, she said, doctors suspected he had developed rhabdomyolysis, which is caused by a breakdown of muscle tissue releasing fiber contents into the blood. It can be caused by trauma, injury, disease, severe exertion or other factors. While rhabdomyolysis can be life-threatening, as the fiber contents released into the blood have the potential to cause severe kidney damage, it is usually treatable if prompt medical attention is sought.
He was hooked to an IV for aggressive rehydration and kept for monitoring overnight. Kim said she went to sleep that night somewhat relieved that doctors did not suspect something more serious, though also worried. She tried to call him the next morning. She rang his cellphone five times, but he didn’t pick up. Worried, she called the emergency department and was informed he was stable and that she could come visit him because he wasn’t a COVID-19 patient.
“I walk in that morning and he is so bad off,” Kim recalled in an interview this week with The Southern. “This is after 10 hours of hydration. It made zero difference. He could hardly move his body.”
While she was there, a different doctor came in to check on Scott. He was not convinced they were dealing with rhabdomyolysis and thought Scott needed to be tested for COVID-19. A rapid test was done and the results came back at about noon — positive.
“For reasons that I don’t understand, they assumed he didn’t have it,” Kim said. “I don’t understand that. But I'm glad because that way I got to go in.” At that point, Kim was told she’d have to leave and Scott was transferred to the hospital’s COVID-19 unit.
She was instructed to get tested and quarantine, which she did. Back at home, she waited anxiously for news. After a few hours, she phoned the hospital and was connected to the doctor, who told her that Scott had been intubated. She knew that was a bad sign, but Kim said the doctor told her not to panic, that it was done to help him breathe and his body relax. They still believed the vibrant 71-year-old would recover. A few hours later, the doctor called her.
“Right away, you can tell by their voice something’s wrong. They don’t just call to say he’s doing fine,” she said. While he was explaining the events that had transpired, Kim said she cut him short to ask: Did he die? He told her that yes, her husband’s heart had stopped suddenly. The medical team tried repeatedly to revive him, but they were unsuccessful.
She was in shock and filled with grief. It had happened so fast. One minute they were moving into their new home, looking forward to this next chapter in their retired life. A few short days later, he was gone.
Kim said she wanted to share her story because she doesn’t think people in Southern Illinois are taking the virus as seriously as they should. While Scott always wore a mask when out, masks are most effective when both parties who cross paths are wearing them. She said that she encounters far more people than she would like who are refusing to wear them, because they believe it tramples on their personal liberties or that the virus is overblown or a hoax. But she stressed that people should be aware that this virus doesn’t care about one’s politics, and doesn’t discriminate.
While many people do recover, COVID-19 has proven to be far more deadly than the flu. And not everyone who dies has serious underlying conditions. For many, it has cut years, possibly decades, from their expected lifespan.
“That’s another thing that people don’t get. They think, ‘Oh, well, you get it but then you get better.’ Well, no, not everybody gets better,” Kim said. Her husband was cremated, but funeral services had to be postponed. Both of his adult children live out of state. Because she was quarantined, Kim said she had little choice but to grieve alone.
“I had to go home and I have no family here,” she said. “I’ve been by myself quarantined. I’ve had plenty of phone calls and that kind of thing, but I’ve not been able to hug one person. I’ve gotten no physical comfort from one person in the grieving process of my husband.”
Natalie Miller, his daughter, said the last time she saw her dad was in March. Her son Arthur, his first grandchild, was 5 weeks old, and Scott and Kim were able to make a visit to their home in Oregon days before the pandemic hit the U.S. and began forcing travel restrictions and stay-at-home orders. “When my dad met him (his grandson) and saw him for the first time, he put his arm around me and he said, ‘You did good.’ That’s a moment that will really stick with me forever,” she said.
Natalie and her sister, Rachel Miller, said their dad was a loving father to them both. He always made sure his children knew they were important to him and that he was proud of them. Natalie said her dad knew how to make the most of life, and for that she’s grateful. He loved ice cream and making homemade pickles, and maintained a large group of friends that he had known for years, dating back to his high school days in Evanston, where he was raised, and from the time he spent in college at Southern Illinois University.
After graduating in 1971, Scott worked as a construction project manager at SIU for many years until his retirement in 2000. Rachel said her dad was kind and patient, consistently there for his family and quietly involved in his community. He regularly volunteered and took great pride in working for his alma mater. Rachel said some of her favorite memories as a child are of her dad taking her to Saluki basketball games and buying a big cookie from the concession stand. He also instilled in her the importance of physical fitness, and a love of running.
Natalie and Rachel both said that the sudden loss of her father has been made more painful by the large numbers of people who seem to downplay the seriousness of the virus that took him unexpectedly from their lives.
“It’s so extremely painful when you’ve lost somebody and the cruel reality is you don’t get to say goodbye and you don’t get to mourn with your family and friends,” Natalie said. “And every time you turn on the TV or look at your phone, you have to endure posts and comments, all of this stuff about the efficacy of masks or the accuracy of the numbers. It’s painful. It’s really painful.”
Kelly Hartung had the most “infectious laugh and smile,” which could light up an entire room.
“My sister was the life of the party. She always had a smile, she always had a laugh,” said Gina Groutage, Kelly’s sister.
Each week, until the COVID-19 pandemic, they would sit down for dinner to reminisce on all the latest happenings of their grandbabies or catch up on Kelly’s latest work adventure — that’s if Kelly hadn’t called Gina to tell her about it already.
“She would call me and tell me: ‘You would not believe where I’m at right now,’” while describing what she was drinking or eating, Groutage said. Hartung would typically split her time between Baltimore and her home tucked away just outside of Herrin.
When reflecting on the characteristics of her sister, Groutage said her sister was the embodiment of someone who always put others before herself. “She always was taking care of someone — always,” she said. “She was the most selfless person that I know. If she had $10 dollars left to her name and you needed it, she would give it to you. She would do anything for anyone and was always so eloquent with her words and always willing to offer advice and to help you out.”
Groutage grew up with Kelly and their three other siblings. “There were five of us and she was by far the sassiest of the bunch,” she said. “We grew up together, the five of us, but I would have to say she was a friend as well as a sister to the each of us.”
The world became a little dimmer on Aug. 16 when Kelly passed away at Memorial Hospital in Carbondale due to complications caused by the COVID-19 virus. Hartung was a healthy 53-year-old woman who loved her family and community, Groutage recalled. She had no underlying conditions and doctors said she had caught the virus through “community spread.”
“My sister was the kind of person who never got sick,” Groutage said. “She didn’t even have a primary care physician because she never got sick.”
Kelly started feeling under the weather and went to get tested for COVID-19 in mid-July, but a few days later received a negative result from her initial test. Groutage told her she needed to go to the emergency room “because she was coughing so hard” it was making her sick. She went to the emergency room and got a second test, which came back positive, and found out she actually had double pneumonia. She was admitted to the COVID-19 intensive care unit the next day and put on a ventilator a few days after.
“She battled for three weeks,” Groutage said. “Three weeks she fought and got to a point where she was breathing at 50% on her own and (the doctors) were expecting to turn the machine down when everything just went to shit.”
Groutage was able to be with her sister during her time in the hospital, but said it was extremely difficult because Kelly was sedated for most of her time there and she wasn’t able to communicate with her. The family had elected to take her off of the ventilator and allow her to be comfortable before she passed. Kelly was cremated and laid to rest in between her parents.
The hospital’s COVID-19 guidelines allowed one person in the room with her during that time, and with Kelly’s children out-of-state, Groutage stepped in to the role and stayed in communication with the family. When she wasn’t in the hospital with her sister, Groutage said the nurses kept them updated on everything that was happening, but wished she and Kelly’s children were able to give a proper goodbye.
“Those nurses care for your loved ones,” she said. “Those nurses call you and say: ‘Hey, thought I’d let you know we gave your sister a bath and brushed her hair.’ Not only are they telling you the medical, they're also telling you things to let you know they care about the person they're taking care of — they’re a person, not just a body in a bed.”
After leaving the hospital, Groutage said she had to quarantine for two weeks in case she had been exposed to the virus. She asked family and friends to be respectful of the health orders to prevent the potential spread of the virus. “I could not live with myself if that happened — if you passed and your loved ones didn’t get to see you, or didn't get to hold your hand, or didn't get to tell you they loved you,” she said. “My sister spent a month in the hospital by herself and for three days she was able to text us back and forth then they put her on the vent.”
While there are some beliefs out there the pandemic may be politically-charged, Groutage said the idea is “ignorant” and she wants people to heed recommended mitigation measures. “People think ‘well when the election comes around it’s all going to go away’ — I’m telling you that I buried my sister, my best friend,” she said. “Wear the damn mask, that’s my message for everybody, wear the damn mask.”
‘An eternal optimist’
Don Welge is remembered as “an eternal optimist” and as someone who “had unlimited faith in what we could accomplish, together.”
Welge, a well-known businessman and philanthropic civic leader, started his career with the food manufacturing company in 1957. Through his time working in the industry, he became the president of Gilster Mary-Lee, a family-held food manufacturer headquartered in Chester.
Don Welge was a great-nephew of one of the original Gilster family members who formed a flour milling business together in the small town of Steeleville at the end of the 19th century. Over more than half a century, he helped modernize, diversify and expand the company into the food manufacturing powerhouse that it is today by helping it find its niche in the store-brand business.
When he started his career with the company, it employed about 20 people. Today, Gilster-Mary Lee employs more than 3,000 people across four states — Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Colorado. Its products are shipped across the U.S. and Canada and into international markets. The company makes such products as pastas, soups, pancake mixes, cereals and other pantry staples.
He turned his family’s small wheat milling business into a large food processing powerhouse, working with 800 items across 14 plants in four different states.
“He was proud he could provide jobs to support the economies of small towns like Chester, Steeleville, Sparta, Centralia and Momence,” said Tom Welge, Don’s son, as he delivered remarks about his recently deceased 84-year-old father to the state leaders during the memorial service in Springfield on Wednesday night.
Outside of his work, Don Welge was an avid LSU Tigers fan and very involved in the Boy Scouts of America, where he had previously served as a council president. He also served on multiple community boards and was active in local chambers of commerce. “He really had a love for Southern Illinois and even the bigger region, including southeast Missouri,” Tom Welge said. “He saw us as one community here.”
Don was also known to help solve issues throughout the community, region and nation, and “he worked with people he always agreed with and those he seldom did,” Welge said from the church’s pulpit. “He understood the importance of solving the bigger issues as a community of citizens.”
Most recently, Tom said, his father was working as part of a group that has been trying to build bridges, both literally and figuratively, in hopes of pushing forward construction of a new bridge to replace the Chester bridge — linking Chester with Perryville, Missouri. The new bridge, he said, would allow safer transportation of farming and manufacturing supplies while linking access to Interstates 57 and 55.
Welge said his father was known to be a “humble” man who cherished the value of communication. “He took the time to speak to anyone who wanted to see him in the office and we would take a phone call from anybody,” Welge said. “He was very much old school, in a good way, about returning phone calls and responding to correspondence. Sometimes I’d have to tell him 'no, this is a piece of junk mail — we don’t need to respond.'”
Tom said one of the things he is going to miss the most about his father is his “optimism and energy.” Despite being 84 years old, “he had a way of keeping people pointed in the right direction,” he said. “He was a great motivator and the way he lived his life and kept people positive and saw the good in things. When faced with a challenge, he would rally his troops and get past it together.”
Looking at some response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Welge said he doesn’t believe people are recognizing the risk of the virus. “Certainly, the odds are in your favor if you’re healthy and don’t have any other issues that you’re dealing with,” Tom Welge said. “But, a lot of families have older people who do face issues and just because they have an underlying condition, it doesn’t mean that’s okay that COVID makes them ill — or even worse, takes them.”
In his immediate family, Don Welge is survived by two sons, Tom and Rob Welge, and his wife, Mary Alice Welge. In addition to his two sons, Don Welge’s brother, Michael Welge, also works at the family-owned business. Tom Welge has taken the helm of his fathers’ business and said, during yesterday’s service, Don would expect the community to work together to get past the pandemic.
“Don Welge would expect us to come together and listen to each other, sacrifice where we must, support each other where we can and come out together on the other side of this difficult time,” he said. “He was able to stay at the work he loved full speed right up to the end of his life. It’s the way he would have written his own story, I’m sure.”
On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI
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