Over 320,000 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus in 2020, a staggering total that cannot describe the incalculable loss felt by the loved ones of those people.
In Monroe County alone, 56 residents have died.
But, as we have grown more accustomed to the pandemic, it can be easy to view these figures only as numbers and not the lives they represent.
To honor and remember those who have lost their battle with COVID-19, the Republic-Times spoke with loved ones of Monroe County residents who died from the virus.
Gene Rice was the first person to die from the coronavirus here, as he passed away April 6.
The 83-year-old Waterloo resident had worked at the Monsanto plant in Sauget, served as a deacon at First Baptist Church in Waterloo and was a member of Concord Presbyterian Church in Waterloo.
Among the loved ones surviving him is his wife, Nancy Rice.
“We were married for almost 63 years. We did everything together,” Nancy said. “I always say to people: Gene was a goer and a doer. There wasn’t any grass that grew under his feet. Whatever he did, he did it 100 percent.”
Nancy and Gene got married on Sept. 6, 1957.
“We had the same background growing up,” Nancy noted, stressing that they both came from Christian families and went to church.
They spent much of the first years of their marriage camping and boating, later getting a second home at Lake of Egypt.
Nancy said she did not have a particularly insightful answer for why their marriage lasted so long, because their relationship seemed so natural.
“I had to laugh because whenever we were married 50 years people would say, ‘how do you do it?’ And I would say, ‘if we live another hundred years, it will be 150,’” she said.
After their years together, Gene went to the hospital March 30, a Monday, with a respiratory illness.
He and Nancy had followed the stay-at-home order that had been issued about two weeks earlier, but Gene had somehow still caught the virus.
“We took him to the hospital to get him better,” Nancy said. “Back then, even though he was in the hospital, it took three days for his COVID test to come back. So by the time they started giving him that medicine, by the weekend there, his body began to shut down.”
A week after being admitted to the hospital, and after being on a ventilator in a medically-induced coma for several days, the doctors turned off the machines keeping Gene alive.
“He didn’t last but a couple minutes,” Nancy said. “The hardest part was we couldn’t be with him. Our family, we always are very good about being with our people in the hospital, and we couldn’t.”
“It’s just so unbelievable still because of the way it all came down,” she added.
In the months since Gene’s death, Nancy said she has leaned on her faith and family, as her daughter and son visit regularly.
“It’s very difficult, especially during this time when we can’t be with people,” Nancy shared. “I don’t know what I would do without the Lord and without my family.”
Her experience with the virus has made Nancy even more cautious than she already was. She wears her mask everywhere and only goes to church, to visit immediate family members, and to buy groceries.
“Outside of that, I just don’t go anywhere or do anything, which, like I said, makes it really hard,” Nancy said. “It would help a lot if you could just be with people… It’s just a very difficult time. I’ll just be so glad whenever we can get back to normal, whatever that is.”
For Wendy Norman of Columbia, tragedy has struck her family twice this year because of the virus.
Her first experience with it came in April when beloved family friend Maurice Schneider was the 10th death out of Garden Place Senior Living in Columbia. He died April 24.
“That was just a smack,” Norman said of Schneider’s passing.
Her parents’ best friend, Schneider was a fixture of Norman’s life.
“I call him my uncle because he was as much my uncle as any of my blood uncles,” she said.
In early March, Garden Place, Norman and Columbia American Legion Post 581 surprised Schneider for his 100th birthday.
The longtime Columbia resident received certificates of appreciation and commendation from Post 581 for over 75 years of service, a “card shower” and birthday party at the facility and a letter from St. Louis Cardinals President Bill DeWitt wishing Schneider a happy birthday on behalf of the entire organization.
A lifelong Cardinals fan, Schneider said at the time that his favorite moment in Redbirds history was the 2011 World Series Game 6 victory over the Texas Rangers.
After graduating from Columbia High School in 1940, Schneider began serving in the military during World War II, earning a Bronze Star in 1942 for combat service in New Guinea.
Schneider continued serving his country through civil service, spending most of his career as chief procurement of helicopter purchases for the U.S. Army and Aviation Surface Command.
After being discharged in 1945, Schneider married Myrtle Dotzauer of Columbia, who he was with for almost 70 years.
He also joined the Legion, serving as its first WWII commander and chairing its Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs for over 30 years.
He was active in other areas of the community as well, serving at St. Paul Lutheran Church, on the Columbia School Board and on the Columbia Public Library Board.
“He was very, very special,” Norman said.
COVID was not done with Norman and her family, as her mother died from the virus about five months later.
Leola Schueler was the second coronavirus death associated with Oak Hill Senior Living & Rehabilitation Center in Waterloo, passing way Sept. 30 at the age of 98.
“She was pretty healthy,” Norman said. “She was definitely frail at 98, but she was doing OK before she had COVID.”
Schueler (nee Ludwig) graduated from Columbia High School in 1940. She was the last surviving member of her class.
She married her husband, Herb, on Oct. 2, 1948 at St. Paul United Church of Christ and Columbia, which she faithfully attended.
Herb and Leola were married for nearly 70 years, with Norman being their only child.
“She was a homemaker all her life, supporting my father who was a major contractor in Columbia,” Norman said. “She was just his main support, and my main support, growing up.”
Schueler taught Sunday school at her church for 10 years, with Norman describing her as a “very humble” person who was always willing to help those she loved.
“She just saw her role in life as that of a support, to her friends, to her family,” Norman said. “If something needed to be done to help out a relative or a friend, she was always there.”
Schueler only moved to Oak Hill, in recent years where her personality charmed the residents and employees.
“She was funny, she enjoyed music. She was kind of everybody’s grandma at Oak Hill,” Norman said.
She still stayed in contact with her family as well.
“We spoke every night, and sometimes a couple times a day – especially when she was in the nursing home,” Norman said. “She was always interested in us, interested in other people. That kind of support, a lot of folks miss.”
Norman learned her mother was getting hospitalized with pneumonia after Oak Hill called her with that information. She had contracted pneumonia previously without being hospitalized, so Norman was already worried.
Two days later, she learned her mother had tested positive for COVID-19.
Norman said her reaction was “fatalistic” after seeing Schneider succumb to the virus.
“There was no animosity toward Oak Hill,” Norman emphasized. “They did a fantastic job keeping it out as long as they did.”
Norman said her family was lucky because they were able to FaceTime with Schueler in the hospital, but it was still difficult to not be with her at the end.
“I know she was scared. I know she was lonesome. To not be there, that was the hardest thing,” she related.
Norman said her family has relied on its faith while grieving for Schneider and Schueler.
“That gets you through just about anything,” she said. “Mom did as well, and so did my uncle. So we know they’re OK.”