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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

The Pandemic

Portraits of a Pandemic: the stories behind the stats of first 100 shelby County victims

COVID-19 deaths include couple married 58 years, minister, ICU nurse

A clutch of small crosses; since the beginning of the local COVID-19 outbreak, more than 100 people have lost their lives. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)
A clutch of small crosses; since the beginning of the local COVID-19 outbreak, more than 100 people have lost their lives. (Jim Weber/Daily Memphian file)

A hundred COVID-19 deaths and counting in Shelby County.

It’s a number that brings grief and some relief.

Far more deaths in two months than anyone could have imagined a year ago.

Far, far fewer deaths than some feared only two months ago

“The death of the local 100th evokes sadness, anger, helplessness and perhaps most distressing among some, apathy,” said Rabbi Micah Greenstein, who has shared more grief than many in his two decades as Temple Israel’s senior rabbi.

“‘Only 100?’” some will say. “‘I thought it would be worse.’ Think again. Each of these 100 lives was an entire world with a grieving family left behind.”

Lawrence Johnson, 80, the respected and successful owner of his own real estate firm, who helped countless people buy their first home, died May 4.

Johnson, the first African-American to become a Lifetime Member of the Memphis Area Association of Realtors, spent a lifetime helping others.

He taught his children never to put anyone in a house they couldn’t afford.

“Our father always put Christ first in everything he did,” his daughter, Elaine DeVerne Johnson-Miles, told the Tri-State Defender. “He would begin every office meeting with a prayer and a song.”

It has been 12 weeks since the coronavirus pandemic grabbed our attention when the first case of COVID-19 was reported here on March 8.

It has been 63 days since the pandemic gripped our lives with the county’s first COVID-19 death on March 26.

<strong>Kenneth Bradshaw</strong>
Kenneth Bradshaw

Kenneth James Bradshaw, 64, a gregarious and prayerul administrator at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, who had risen through the ranks from carpenter’s assistant, died March 26, the county’s first COVID-19 victim.

Family, friends and co-workers had thrown him a retirement party March 6 to celebrate his 46 years at the school. A week later, he felt a cold coming on.

”It all happened so quickly,” said his wife Beverly Watkins Bradshaw. “Ken never gave up, never gave in, always gave back, and never forgot where he came from.”

The local COVID-19 death count is dramatically and blessedly lower than early warnings in March that the virus could claim 8,000-20,000 lives in Shelby County, if the community failed to take precautions.

 Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do

“This is serious,” Dr. Bruce Randolph, the county’s public health officer, said April 3, the morning he reported eight COVID deaths. “This is a life-and-death moment. The actions that we take now will make a difference in the number of deaths that occur as a result of COVID-19.”

Social distancing, testing, tracing and other measures we took to “flatten the curve” and diminish “the surge” no doubt saved countless lives.

But those precautions left many victims to die alone in hospitals or nursing homes, isolated from their spouses and children, dear friends and clergy.

More than four in 10 died in local long-term care facilities, which have become the epicenters of the epidemiological COVID-19 crisis here and across the country.

James Jones (submitted)
James Jones (submitted)

James Jones, 85, a retired mechanic, died alone in Room 112 West in the Parkway Health and Rehabilitation Center on April 21.

Jones, who suffered from kidney disease, pulmonary obstruction, hypertension and other woes, was scheduled for only a brief stay there to regain his strength following a seizure in March.

“I thought he was coming home. I had washed everything in his room. Cleaned it up real good,” said his daughter, Dinett King. “But he never made it home.”

COVID-19 interrupted nearly all regularly scheduled programming, from March Madness to Memphis in May.

It short-circuited daily routines that structured and sustained our lives — going to work, to school, to worship, to the store or out to eat.

It divided our lives into essential and nonessential activities, and demanded that we wash our hands, wear a mask and keep our distance.

Nearly seven in 10 victims were African-Americans, numbers that show the disproportionate toll the virus is taking on 54 percent of the county’s population.

Tim Russell
Tim Russell

Rev. Tim Russell, 62, a gentle, big-hearted assistant pastor at Second Presbyterian Church, died in isolation at a hospital March 30.

Rev. George Robertson, Second’s senior pastor, said Russell’s last words to him were from Psalm 126: “Those who sow with tears and weeping/ Will return with joyful song.”

The next day, the church’s Chancel Choir stood outisde his home and sang “Blessed Assurance” to Russell’s wife, Kathe, a tribute featured on NBC’s Today show.

The COVID death count here does not include the more than 120 people who have died of drug overdoses here since March 1.

From April 18 to May 18, 70 people died of drug overdoses, the highest total for a 30-day period since the county began keeping records in January 2019. During that same time period, there were 55 reported COVID deaths.

Authorities said the spike was a consequence of the pandemic’s social separation and economic disruption.

“All of that has an effect on the mental health and the physical health of people,” U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant told reporters.

Frances Fortune Mathewson, 93, a devoted wife and mother of three — two of whom became ministers — died May 24.

”She truly loved her children, her home, her pets, traveling and enjoying life, living it to the fullest,” her family wrote in her obituary.

”Her husband Art told me on one of her St. Patrick’s day birthdays that she was his lucky charm,” Rev. Lisa Anderson, her pastor, posted on Facebook this week. “In my imagination when she saw Jesus she said, ‘Well honey, I’m so glad to see you’, and I know the feeling was mutual.”

COVID-19 has had an effect on all of us in some way, and changed our lives in so many ways.

It cancelled, postponed or otherwise disrupted countless rites and rituals.

It changed how we gathered to celebrate Passover, Easter and Ramadan.

It canceled proms and graduations, birthday parties and retirement parties, weddings, baptisms, even funerals.

It stopped us from visiting hospitals and nursing homes, and forced us to celebrate and grieve lost loved ones from our cars, or outside gates and windows, or on Zoom.

Dan Spector, 68, a sculptor and owner of Archicast, whose work graces the 19th Century Club on Union, the Exchange Building, and Brinkley Plaza, died March 31. He was the county’s third COVID-19 victim.

His graveside service was live-streamed to several dozen mourners on zoom.

“For Jewish people, one of the most sacred things we do is to throw dirt on the casket,” his friend, Michele Kiel Less, told the Daily Memphian. “It’s the community saying we love and care for you and will make sure it is covered. Each person has a part in it. And we couldn’t do it. That’s when I kind of broke down.”

A healthcare worker walks out of the COVID-19 drive-thru testing facility at Tiger Lane April 10, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)
A healthcare worker walks out of the COVID-19 drive-thru testing facility at Tiger Lane in April 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian file)

Memphis and Shelby County public officials, public health experts and others have been battling COVID-19 surge for three months.

They’ve convened daily to assess and assemble and adjust our response, from “Safer at Home” to “Back to Business.”

They’ve converted Tiger Lane from football tailgating to drive-thru testing. They’ve converted a shuddered newspaper building into an alternative hospital.

They’ve counted on the compassion and courage of nurses and doctors and EMTs and other health care providers and first responders.

Neftali “Neff” Rios, 37, a gentle, intelligent registered nurse at St. Francis Hospital’s intensive care unit, died April 26.

Rios came down with fever, body aches and a terrible cough in mid-April. He tested positive for the coronavirus. Several family members got sick, too. His parents were hospitalized.

On April 26, Neff collapsed at home. His wife, Kristina, called 911 and started CPR. When the ambulance arrived, he had already died.

“Neff was never scared” of catching the virus at work,” his brother, Josuw Rios, told Kaiser Health News. “You take an oath to take care of people, no matter what.”

Shelby County’s COVID-19 death rate is about 8 per 100,000.

That’s a relatively low death rate compared to homicide (14.6), flu/pneumonia (19), drug overdose (21), and firearms (24.7).

But if that rate continues over the next 9 months, the virus will have claimed more than 450 local lives in a year.

Only heart disease, cancer, stroke and unintentional injuries claim more local lives each year.

Small comfort for the families of those who died.

Dr. Charles F. Safley Jr., 78, a retired dermatologist, avid duck hunter and devoted husband, father and grandfather, died April 3 at Baptist Hospital.

Safley moved to Memphis as a child and graduated from East High School. After earning his medical degree at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, he joined the Navy and was stationed in Japan. After 45 years in private practice, he retired two years ago.

“He was always thinking of others, and giving memories to other people,” his daughter, Allison Warren, told The Commercial Appeal. “We’re just so lucky that we were able to do that with him.”

Shelby County reported eight COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest daily total yet, pushing the local death count at 102.

By comparison, the Yellow Fever epidemics of 1873 and 1878 claimed more than 7,000 local lives.

The 1918 Spanish flu claimed 493 local lives that year, and several hundred more over the next several years.

A century later, another virus threatens.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime epidemic,” Alisa Haushalter, executive director of the Shelby County Health Department, told the community April 2. “It’s important for those of us who know that to say that so that people understand this is something very serious.”

Margaret and Ed Powe, who were married for 58 years, died one hospital room and four days apart in mid-April.

The Powes moved from Charlotte, N.C., to the Village at Germantown three years ago to be near their son, Charles and his family.

A husband and wife, married for 58 years, have died just four days apart as a result of complications from the novel coronavirus.

Posted by Good Morning America on Friday, May 1, 2020

Last November, they moved from independent to assisted living. In April, they were admitted to adjacent rooms at Baptist Memorial Hospital.

Nurses delivered photos and messages between the two.

“The nurses called and said, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re all so emotional up here,’” daughter-in-law Lisa Powe told the Charlotte Observer. “‘It’s just like ‘The Notebook.’ It’s such a beautiful love story.’”

Margaret Sanders Powe, 80, died on April 14. Dr. Charles “Ed” Powe Jr., 88, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist, died April 18.

”They lived a beautiful life,” daughter Hettie Reule told ABC’s Good Morning America. “They were a sweet couple. We’re heartbroken that they’re gone, but there’s comfort knowing that they’re together.”

The New York Times filled its entire front page Sunday (and three inside pages) with the brief death notices of 1,000 of the nation’s more than 100,000 COVID-19 victims.

Among them: “Myra Janet Headley, 72, Memphis, loved Jesus, Elvis, Dr Pepper and her family.”

Myra Janet Overmyer Coffman Headley worked for many years as a certified nursing assistant in hospitals, nursing homes, and home health care.

After her health declined, she passed the time by crocheting winter scarves for the homeless.

The final line of her obituary summed up the plight facing the families of all COVID-19 victims in these grievous times.

“The family will hold a memorial service in Myra’s honor as soon as it is deemed safe to gather.”

The Times could have added others from Memphis in these grievous times.

Jim Doran, 81, Bette’s husband for 62 years, Mark and Karen’s father, grandfather and local businessman who owned and operated several TCBY stores, died April 29.

“He worked hard until time for retirement,” his family wrote in his obituary. “His children would ask that instead of memorials, once social distancing comes to an end, you take your spouse/loved one out and enjoy time together in his memory. You don’t know how much time you have with your loved ones.”

This story first appeared at under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

David Waters is Distinguished Journalist in Residence and assistant director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.

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