Mandy Vint Troia still will make kringla this year.
Baking cookies at the holidays was one of those special rituals she and her brother, Tim, shared with their father, Tom Vint. And kringla, a pretzel-shaped Norwegian cookie, were one of TomVint's specialties.
Vint, who learned to bake from his mother, knew the "Grandma secrets" for making the cookies. Cousins would call or text her father for advice, which he graciously gave.
But this year, Troia will bake the cookies without her dad.
Vint, a longtime Associated Press sports writer and Omaha AP bureau staffer, died Sept. 2 after a monthlong battle with COVID-19. He was 72.
As the holidays approach, the Vint family is among thousands heading into their first such season without loved ones lost to the virus. They must go on without them as they cling to cherished rituals and memories.
In Nebraska, COVID-19 had claimed 905 people as of Saturday. Nationwide, the pandemic death toll last week topped 250,000.
By comparison, 393 Nebraskans died of influenza in 2017. Nationally, U.S. flu death totals have ranged between 12,000 and 61,000 a year over the past 10 years.
IT'S TIME FOR A MASK MANDATE
The Omaha World-Herald editorial board calls on Ricketts to impose a statewide mandate.
Recognizing that there are people — and families — behind the COVID deaths has been challenging. As the pandemic has surged this fall, the fight has focused on slowing the spread of the virus and keeping it from killing people.
Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the University of Nebraska Medical Center's infectious diseases division, said last week that people have become numbed by the numbers.
"Each and every one of these are human lives," he said. "Human beings, mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, people who contribute to society, who are loved and are going to be missed."
Troia, who marked her 43rd birthday the day her father died, said he will be missed by many. Troia golfed with him every Saturday for years before she moved to Dallas and married. While he was still working for the Associated Press and she was in college, the two would meet at Westroads Mall for lunch. He'd buy — she was a broke college student — and share a story or some advice. After he retired in 2005, he'd call and invite her to stop by and taste his latest recipe.
"You know how there's always a glue in the family?" she said. "He's our glue. So now we have to just try extra hard to be sticky."
Such losses ripple beyond families and through communities. Vint coached his own children in youth sports. After they were grown, he coached the children of family friends. Vint also led an adult Sunday school at Westside Church and hosted a weekly meal and Bible study at his home.
Son Tim Vint, who lives in California, said that after his father's death, 12 different people told him that Vint was their best friend. About 250 people attended his socially distanced funeral, and 400 connected online.
Norman Barnes of Omaha counts himself among Tom Vint's best friends. He and Vint met about 25 years ago through the Sunday school. Vint wasn't teaching it then. He reluctantly stepped into the role— standing up in front of others and teaching was hard for him — after being tapped by the previous teacher.
Twice when Barnes had house projects that he had put off for a while, Vint showed up with a crew of guys to help.
"He was just a great guy," Barnes said. "He really left a big hole in a bunch of people's lives."
Georgie Vint, Vint's wife of 51 years, said she has marveled at the outpouring of support at her husband's funeral and afterward.
"I didn't realize he touched that many lives," she said. "That's the part that was amazing. You never realize how many lives they touch until they're gone. And then you wish they knew."
* * *
Tom Vint and Georgie Feld met as kids — she was 13, he was 15 — growing up in Marshalltown, Iowa.
They dated off and on during junior high and high school and then married in 1969, after Georgie graduated.
Tom Vint played baseball for the city's community college before moving on to Iowa State and graduating in 1970 with a bachelor's degree in journalism and mass communication.
He was drafted during the Vietnam War and served in Germany. Because he could type, he was tapped as a desk clerk. After he returned, he worked as a sports and outdoor writer at the Lincoln Journal Star.
Georgie Vint said her husband sometimes wrote columns about his kids. In one, he noted that giving kids gifts was good, but time is more important. "He gave them his time, for sure," she said.
Vint joined the AP in 1980 and covered Nebraska's football teams during their dominant years in the '80s and '90s. Vint later wrote or contributed to two books about Husker national championships.
Vint's Husker connections made for a few funny moments around the house. A couple of times, his son was home watching TV with friends when someone would call for Vint. "I'd say, 'Tom Osborne's on the phone,' " Georgie said. "The kids would say, 'Tom Osborne!' "
Vint also covered the College World Series for many years at Rosenblatt Stadium and was a fixture in the press rooms at high school state championship events.
Vint was known for his integrity and wisdom.
"Everybody really went to him for advice," Troia said. "And it wasn't like my dad gave you advice or told you how to fix the situation. But he would guide you or direct you to come up with your own path."
Tim Vint said the list of advice-seekers included him, his former baseball teammates and his three now-grown children. His wife, Shandah, who helps out with a youth group at their church, shared Bible studies with Vint.
"My family called him human Xanax, because he could calm you down no matter how rough a day you had," Tim Vint said. "And he did it in a way that didn't make you feel small for feeling the way you did."
Tim said his father also wrapped all of his mom's Christmas presents. Each recipient's gifts was color-coordinated — no tags needed.
Vint also was a fisherman, a golfer and a bowler who rolled two perfect 300 games. He loved dogs, particularly Labrador retrievers. When Troia married Dr. Tim Troia, Vint was excited to have a veterinarian in the family.
Vint also wrote a book called "Walking With Dog: What Man's Best Friend Can Teach Us About God." Troia created the cover art, with Tim Vint's late Lab, Gabbie, as the model. Troia gave Tom Vint his latest lab, Lexie, when her dog had puppies.
Lexie and Tessa, a Yorkie, would sit at the window and wait for Vint to get home.
"The dogs still sit by that window," Tim Vint said, "waiting for him to turn that corner."
* * *
Tom Vint told his daughter he thought he may have picked up the coronavirus at a restaurant in late July, a time when cases were low in Omaha and restrictions fairly loose. A couple of days later, both her parents traveled to Troia's home for a short weekend visit.
After Vint returned to Omaha, he felt tired, Troia said. Later, his condition worsened, and Georgie Vint took her husband to the emergency room. In the hospital, he received remdesivir and oxygen. For a time, the family was able to talk and text with him.
But Troia said she called one day and a nurse told her they were intubating her father and putting him on a ventilator. Eventually, family members were allowed to go in one at a time to visit him in the ICU.
Georgie Vint said she last saw her husband when he was paralyzed and sedated. "All we could do is sit with him and hold his hand, rub his back and tell him we loved him," she said. "You don't know how much he's hearing."
Vint had undergone heart bypass surgery in January 2019, but he recovered quickly and was a model patient. He was active playing golf, taking walks and doing yard work.
"I just never guessed that it would hit him like this," his wife said. "If there's anything you can get across, it's how serious this is. People shouldn't take it lightly."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.
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COMPLETE COVERAGE IN POSTGAME
For more than 10 years, Phyllis "Tiny" McCaul raised seven of her late niece's sons and daughters like they were her own offspring.
She took them in at age 60 after widowed dad Gary Staton left them at a hospital in 2008 under Nebraska's former safe haven law.
Finances were tight, but she persevered.
When The World-Herald featured the family in its 2009 Thanksgiving edition, readers wanted to help. Many contacted the newspaper's Goodfellows charity, which collected monetary donations and delivered them to McCaul, who was known as Aunt Tiny.
To make donations: Online: Omaha.com/goodfellows
Mail: World-Herald Goodfellows, 1314 Douglas St., Suite 600, Omaha, NE 68102
Donations to date: $23,353.43
"She was very feisty, kindhearted and very giving," Staton said.
At the time of her death, Aunt Tiny was still raising Willow Staton, now 13.
And Goodfellows was still having an impact on her life, as it does for hundreds of struggling area residents each year. The charity has provided more than $16 million in emergency aid to individuals since its founding in the 1890s.
Today marks the beginning of the charity's annual holiday fundraising campaign, which now is a partnership between The World-Herald and United Way of the Midlands. Under the arrangement, United Way will take an administrative fee, but donations will not be mingled with other United Way funds. The World-Herald will kick off the campaign with a $15,000 donation.
Goodfellows will continue to provide help for people struggling to pay rent and utilities and provide holiday food vouchers. It also supplies hats, gloves and other clothing for schoolchildren.
The story of the anonymous donors who have helped the McCaul-Staton family since Aunt Tiny retrieved the kids from foster care is an especially compelling example of Goodfellows' outreach.
A retired Omaha man met the kids before they went to live with Aunt Tiny when he was a volunteer tutor at their North Omaha grade school.
When their dad dropped them off at the hospital, the man was moved to do something, said his wife, who tutored at the same school when she retired a few years after her husband.
"I came home from teaching one night and he was making plans to build on our house and bring the kids here," she said.
When Aunt Tiny stepped up, they still wanted to help. They decided to give the family a monthly check of $500 — $6,000 a year.
Now, that adds up to nearly $60,000.
"We didn't want her to know us, so we were happy to do it through Goodfellows," she said.
They would drop off their checks each month to former Goodfellows Executive Director Joel Long and his successor, Sue Violi, who then delivered them to the family.
The donor downplayed the magnitude of their gift.
"We don't want any credit because God has blessed us beyond measure and it was nothing to write that check," she said. "God put us in that school to meet those kids."
They moved to Florida a few years ago. Once in a while, the donor said, Goodfellows would forward a letter to them from Aunt Tiny. She wrote with gratitude that the money they provided meant the kids could participate in extracurricular activities such as Scouting.
"We knew Aunt Tiny was doing great things with (the money)," she said. "We totally trusted her."
In Florida, they volunteer with the Salvation Army to feed the homeless and have worked with a program for kids who have nowhere to go after school.
Willow now lives with Cheyenne Staton, who has a full-time job at Walmart. The coronavirus has been a bit tough on Staton and her fiancé, who lost his job when the pandemic hit but now is working again. She had to get food stamps for a time.
Following Aunt Tiny's example, she didn't think twice about taking in Willow, who has been struggling since her great-aunt's death. She hopes to become her legal guardian.
"I want to make sure Willow is OK. That's my priority right now," she said.
As Tiny grew older, Staton said, they discussed Willow's future.
"Me andTiny talked about it years ago and played the 'what if' game. I said, obviously I would take her because she's my little sister," she said.
The other siblings agreed that Cheyenne was the best choice. When asked about parenting a teenager at age 27, she said the weirdest thing about it was meeting with Willow's teachers at school.
Aunt Tiny set a great example, however. Staton said the family considered her the go-to person when they needed help.
She extended her mothering to her clients in her job as an advocate for people who had mental illness and substance abuse issues, Staton said.
She was employed by Region V Systems in Lincoln until her death. She served on the Joint Behavioral Health Advisory Committee, the Mental Health Association's board of directors and other councils and committees throughout her career.
"She always had to bring her clients chocolate," Staton said. "She said it makes them feel better. She was a very, very giving person."
To donate to this year's Goodfellows campaign, visit unitedwaymidlands.org/goodfellows.
A substitute shortage that had frustrated Nebraska schools prior to the pandemic is now so acute that schools are in an all-hands-on-deck status, assigning administrators to cover classrooms and wooing college students to sub over their winter break.
Students who are studying to be teachers are being recruited to work after Thanksgiving during the extended winter breaks that college officials created last summer.
Teachers are burning plan time to cover for colleagues. Students whose teachers are absent are being temporarily placed into other teachers' classrooms.
Principals and other staffers with teaching credentials, who don't normally teach, are being asked to fill in.
Alison Evangelisti, 39, principal at Pine Creek Elementary School in the Bennington Public Schools, has been subbing a couple of days a week, catching up on her principal duties at night.
"I've subbed, I think, every grade level, and every special (class), minus PE," Evangelisti said. "So I've done art, music, I've done it all."
In the Omaha Public Schools, members of the district's central office staff are being assigned to help out subbing from Nov. 30 through the remainder of the school year.
The district has been unable to find substitutes for about two out of three teacher absences since the district reopened in its hybrid plan in mid-October, officials said.
In a memo, the OPS human resources department said central office staff would likely be assigned to hard-to-fill positions and buildings. They may be asked to substitute in an area outside their certification or experience, the memo said.
In other districts, it's a similar story.
The Bellevue Public Schools started school with a 96.1% fill rate, but that was down to 61.3% for the week ending Nov. 13, the district said.
The Elkhorn Public Schools, the first week of school, had 150 sub requests and filled 97%. For the week of Nov. 9-13, requests were at 449 and the fill rate 79%.
In the Papillion La Vista Community Schools, the first-week fill rate was 97%, but it fell to 86% two weeks ago — a year ago in November it was in the high 90s.
"It is definitely compounded during COVID time," said Kati Settles, the district's assistant superintendent for human resources.
The district is averaging 8.75 unfilled teaching jobs a day, better than some districts, but they've had some rough days, Settles said.
"Our highest day was 23, and that was a really bad day for us," she said. "We were able to support by sending out some other people on those days, but the truth of it is everybody's job is harder during COVID."
She said the district is still trying to offer incentives, such as prize drawings, to pull in subs.
Teachers are the linchpin, the critical piece holding things together, if schools are going to stay open. And quarantining has been the greatest bugaboo keeping them out of the classroom.
On Thursday, the Douglas County Health Department reported that in the previous 14 days, K-12 schools reported 184 COVID-19 cases of school staff and 204 students. The schools reported 413 individuals in quarantine and 1,553 people being self-monitored, the department said.
Evangelisti said she understands the pressures that teachers are under and the guilt they feel when they are absent and know their class could go without a sub.
"They know I have a plan if there's not one," she said, "and they need to worry about what they're going through, and I will worry about school."
Evangelisti said that no matter how early a sub job is posted, filling it is hard.
"It truly has not mattered if we put that in days in advance or hours, it is not getting picked up unless it is pre-arranged from teacher to substitute," she said.
Her school has been fortunate that sub demands have been fairly consistent. She knows of other schools not so fortunate. Bennington schools are in full in-person model with a remote option.
She said the district plans to work with college students to help them get their local sub license.
Bennington Principal Terry Haack said a college student can make money while building their résumé.
Haack said students could work the holiday break in retail for $11 or $12 an hour and work 15 hours "or you could come to school and get $160 to $185 a day for subbing for about eight hours."
Sara Skretta, certification officer in the College of Education and Human Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said schools are snatching up students who can fill in.
Subbing is a good way for students to get practice, earn some money and keep school functioning, she said.
"It's also a great pathway to a full-time job," she said.
The extra-long winter break allows for college students who are not already student-teaching, for instance a junior with a local sub certificate, to sub, she said.
"They now can literally work every day until they come back to the university, which is a good two months," she said.
Skretta anticipates that substituting next spring will again be a "hot ticket."