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More than numbers: Remembering the lives of Nebraskans lost to COVID
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More than numbers: Remembering the lives of Nebraskans lost to COVID

covid lost.jpg

From March 27 — when the first Nebraskan died from COVID-19 — through Nov. 5, Nebraska typically saw three people die per day from COVID. For months, that kind of loss rippled through our state, day after day after day after day. For 224 days.

A look at just a few of the Nebraskans lost to COVID in 2020.

Where do you even start?

Jack Fynbu was a hot rod buff.

Ming Wang loved cooking and feeding people.

Daphne Newton felt called to help people in need.

That’s barely a start.

Jack Fynbu loved classic cars and was gifted with a mechanic’s talent that he took into a career with the City of Lincoln.

Ming Wang poured his love of food into Ming’s Restaurant, developing it into a Papillion staple that has stood for 31 years.

Professionally, Daphne Newton worked 37 years as a nurse and, personally, took in children as a licensed foster parent or even people who needed a place to stay.

That’s a little more.

One day, Jack Fynbu was on his way to work at the city mechanic shop when he saw a homeless woman walking in the cold with a ratty pair of boots. That night, he asked his wife, Edith, if she had a spare of boots, and she did.

Fynbu left the boots on the walkway where he saw the woman. Not long after, he passed the woman again — and saw she had received the boots as he hoped.

Ming Wang loved throwing parties at his restaurant — and the best marked the Chinese New Year. He invited his family, the restaurant staff and their families, and loyal customers who became friends.

Wang spent the day cooking a feast for all. When everybody had a heaping plate of food, Wang emerged from the kitchen, smiling at the joy he witnessed and socializing with people close to his heart. The big treat — he handed out lucky red envelopes with money inside for the kids.

Daphne Newton, who was known for her compassion and kindness, could never turn away a person in need. Not only a foster parent, Newton opened her home to anyone in need.

One time, she took in a cousin’s family who knocked at the door; another time, a friend of the family.

She took in so many people, Newton’s family called her home, “The House of Hope.”

That’s a start in telling the stories of the people we’ve lost in this coronavirus pandemic.

Fynbu, Wang and Newton are three Nebraskans lost to COVID-19 this year, and their deaths have ripped through their families and friends and the people who cherished their loved one.

Yet their absence is only a start in explaining the state’s loss.

From March 27 — when the first Nebraskan died from COVID-19 — through Nov. 5, Nebraska typically saw three people die per day from COVID. For months, that kind of loss rippled through our state, day after day after day after day. For 224 days.

Now, it’s much worse. On Nov. 6, Nebraska recorded more than 20 COVID deaths for the first time. On Dec. 1, the number rose to 47. The next day, it was 46. The next, 42.

When the number of deaths is so high — more than 1,400 people and rising every day — it’s almost impossible to see exactly what we’ve lost. 

Where do you even start?

Today, The World-Herald presents a collective look at the lives of some of the people we’ve lost. With the help of fellow journalists around the state, the newspaper offers the stories of 40 people with Nebraska ties who died from COVID-19.

In stark numerical terms, that's about how many people we lose to COVID every two days now.

Unfortunately, it’s just a start.

World-Herald staff writer Jessica Wade contributed to this report.

More than numbers: The lives of 40 Nebraskans

Samiera Abou-Nasr (web)

Samiera Abou-Nasr

Samiera Abou-Nasr

Age 80/Owned Baba’s Gyros 

Samiera Abou-Nasr was born and raised in Haifa, Palestine, before moving to Lebanon with her family in 1948.

In 1984, she immigrated to the United States with her seven children. When her husband, Omar, joined the family in Omaha four years later, they opened their restaurant, Baba’s Gyros near 80th and Dodge Streets, which they ran for 22 years.

Abou-Nasr died Nov. 23 at 80 years old.

"She was the most sophisticated, beautiful, strongest and funniest person I have ever known," Samiera's granddaughter, Sofia Kennedy Abou-Nasr, said.

"Her life was dedicated to her family and loved ones. She would always say to me, 'You give me life,' and I finally understand what she meant by that. She lived for us. For her large, growing family, and she continues to live on in each one of us."

Samiera is survived by her seven children, Bassam Abou-Nasr, Issam Abou-Nasr, Hussam Abou-Nasr, Nasser Abou-Nasr, Ibtissam Abou-Nasr, Karimah Nabulsi and Reema Abou-Nasr; 19 grandchildren; and two brothers.

Mike Acquazzino (web)

Mike Acquazzino with his wife, Dee Acquazzino, and daughters, Allison and Kristen Acquazzino.

Age 67/Diehard Husker fan

Mike Acquazzino, 67, was a diehard Husker fan, and to his wife and two daughters, he was “kind, gentle and wholesome.” The father and husband never missed a chance to tell his family that he loved them.

The Omaha man died of COVID-19 on Nov. 27. His daughter, Kristen Acquazzino, said he was “a man worth knowing.”

“He cared so much about his family,” Kristen said. “He has a very large family of brothers and sisters and cousins who he was very close to.”

Acquazzino survivors include his wife, Dee Acquazzino; daughters, Allison and Kristen Acquazzino; five siblings and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews.

Elinor Borders (web)

Elinor Borders

Elinor Borders

Age 106/Accomplished seamstress

Independent, funny, gracious.

That's how Deb Miller remembers her aunt, Elinor Borders of Omaha.

Borders was a constant in the lives of her Omaha nieces and nephews and their children.

"She was very caring, she always had time for us," Deb Miller said. "She was always willing to pass along information on her hobbies and took an interest in ours."

Borders died May 17 of COVID-19. She was 106.

An accomplished seamstress, she sewed into her 90s, Miller said. She also played a tough game of cards.

Every family has its stories, and with Aunt Elinor, it was about the table. She acquired a table, but it wouldn't fit in her car. So she sawed the leg off and then reattached it at home.

That table was passed on to Miller, who uses it in her pottery studio.

"I love that table just the way it is," she said.

Darrin Cook (web)

Darrin Cook

Darrin Cook

Age 57/Suited up as Santa

Darrin Cook helped raise tens of thousands of dollars to fight diabetes, assisted college baseball teams in the College World Series and suited up as Santa every Christmas for a Special Olympics bowling outing.

The 57-year-old Bennington resident died Aug. 31 of complications from COVID-19.

"He's done so much for the community," said Michelle Cook, his wife of 31 years. "And (he had) such a big heart. He gave so much of his time out of work."

After his death, she found one last text on his phone that he hadn't sent: "Tell the kids I love them, and I love you, too."

Lt. Ken Dahlke (web)

Lt. Ken Dahlke

Ken Dahlke

Age 58/Retired State Patrol lieutenant

The Nebraska State Patrol remembers Lt. Ken Dahlke as “a great man and a great role model for the many troopers he worked with who carry on the legacy of dedication to public service.”

The 58-year-old Lincoln man died Nov. 17 of COVID-19 complications.

Dahlke retired in 2017 after a 33-year career with the patrol. He was awarded the superintendent’s citation for meritorious service, the superintendent’s group citation three times, and the superintendent's distinguished service award five times. He was most recently an investigator for the Nebraska Department of Education, according to his obituary.

He is survived by his sons, Casey, Colby and Connor; his mother, Amelia; brother, Martin; sister, Marilyn Earl; and his dog, Gus.

Karen darling (web)

Karen Darling

Karen Darling

Age 70/Avid gardener

A vacation for Karen Darling meant something as simple as a short trip outside to her yard, tending to her plants.

Darling loved to garden so much that she would check the forecast and take vacation days when it was the perfect weather for planting flowers.

Her only son, Greg Darling, joked with her that gardening was for the weekends and that she should actually travel for her vacation.

“There were flowers in the house and flowers outside,” he said. “Lots of pots and flowers all over the place. She liked the perennials — not the annuals.”

Darling, 70, was among the first people to die of complications from COVID-19 in Douglas County. She died April 3 at Immanuel Medical Center, after being on a respirator and in a medically induced coma since March 18, when an ambulance took her to the hospital.

Darrell Dibben (web)

Darrell Dibben

Darrell Dibben

Age 90/Longtime Dana College professor

Darrell Dibben’s thoughts were for his family even as he was being wheeled to an ambulance from a Blair assisted living center to keep battling COVID-19 at an Omaha hospital.

“We couldn’t be with him because he (tested positive for) COVID-19, but I was outside in a mask, back away from him,” eldest son Dave Dibben of Blair said. “I said, ‘Dad, how you doing?’ Right away, he found me in the crowd and said, ‘I’m fine, Dave, how are you? Are you all right?’

“That was Dad,” Dave Dibben said. “He cared so much more about others. That’s what made him an outstanding parent and an outstanding teacher.”

Darrell Dibben, a longtime professor at Dana College in Blair, died April 12 from complications of COVID-19 at Immanuel Medical Center.

In 1965, Dibben began a 30-year stint at Dana College, where he taught communications, language arts and education classes. He was instrumental in starting the school radio station, KDCV-FM, and remained its adviser until his retirement in 1995.

Dibben served in the U.S. Army in Korea during the Korean War as a communications specialist.

In 1960, he married Marjorie Tesdahl Meyerholz, who died in 2002. The couple raised four children, all of whom graduated from Dana College.

Dibben is survived by his children, Sherri Andersen, Shelli Mosser, David Dibben and Daniel Dibben; along with nine grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren; and four great-great-grandchildren.

Cecilia Dunnigan (web)

Cecilia Dunnigan

Cecilia Dunnigan

Age 91/Loved to dance

Cecilia Dunnigan of Lincoln was the go-to person in her neighborhood.

Level-headed and resourceful, she had a knack for patching up kids, sorting out problems and getting things done. Even into her 80s, Dunnigan looked after a neighbor, her daughter Joan said. An accomplished seamstress, she tidied up many a neighbor's outfits and sewed countless bridesmaid's dresses.

"If people needed anything, even if they just needed a good idea, she was the one they relied on," her daughter said.

She loved to dance, and even met her husband on the dance floor.

Dunnigan died July 30 of complications from COVID-19. She was 91. 

Dunnigan was preceded in death by her husband, Lorn, daughter Beth and two sisters and two brothers. She is survived by her children, David, Diane Lamb, Joan, Karan and Brian, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Robert Fausset (web)

Robert Fausset

Robert M. Fausset

Age 64/Car dealership sales manager

It was his sense of humor and “big goofy smile” that Anita Kunken loved most about Robert “Bob” Fausset.

The couple’s first date was at a local bar and grill, a spot Anita chose. She figured if it didn’t go well, she’d just order an appetizer and keep things short. Anita and Bob spent hours talking.

“We just hit off. He was so witty,” Anita said.

The couple was together for seven years.

Bob, 64, died at the Nebraska Medical Center Nov. 12 from COVID-19 complications.

A sales manager at a car dealership, the Omaha man mentored dozens of people and always kept a positive attitude.

“He had so many friends,” Anita said. “He could make a connection with anyone, and he made work interesting is what a lot people said.”

Bob is survived by his children, Farrah and Michael; grandsons; sister, Pam Odorisio; significant other, Anita Kunken; and many nieces, nephews, cousins and friends.

Paul Filsinger (web)

Paul Filsinger and Brenda Moeller

Paul Filsinger

Age 60/Professional photographer

On Oct. 1, Paul Filsinger died after a seven-week battle with COVID-19. The professional photographer contracted the virus while photographing a wedding.

Filsinger, 60, a native of Norfolk, owned First Impressions Photography, a part-time business he’d started years ago but expanded to full time in 2017.

His fiancee, Brenda Moeller, said meeting Filsinger was the joy of her life.

For years, the couple envisioned a destination wedding in Alaska or on a sailboat at sunset, but they never picked a date.

“We were waiting for the perfect time and the perfect place to get married, but we weren’t real worried about setting a date. We thought we had forever,” Moeller said.

Harold (Jack) Fynbu (web)

Harold (Jack) Fynbu

Jack Fynbu

Age 75/Loved hot rod cars

Harold “Jack” Fynbu loved hot rods.

His dream car was his ‘32 Deuce — a red beauty with a tan canvas top. He took years to restore the classic to its full finish, through his own mechanic’s hand and the help of friends.

“They spent countless hours helping each other build their dream cars,” said Fynbu’s wife, Edith.

His Deuce became his show car — a prize so well finished it garnered Fynbu some 60 car show trophies and plaques.

But it was just one of his loves. Fynbu had five children with his first wife, five step-children through Edith, 18 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

He was a Husker football fan and season-ticket holder, who when he was young watched games through a fence hole. He coached midget football for years for his sons.

Fynbu died of COVID-19 on Aug. 6 at age 75 and was cremated. His memorial service on Aug. 15 also remembered his son, Jeff, who died earlier this year.

In the procession to Fynbu’s gravesite at Lincoln Memorial Park, he rode in the rumble seat in his ‘32 Deuce — one last ride in his dream car.

Pedro Garcia (web)

Pedro Garcia

Pedro Garcia III

Age 27/Cozad paraeducator

A gentle giant. A teddy bear.

That’s how coaches and teachers remember Pedro Garcia III, 27, who died May 2 from COVID-19 at a hospital in Kearney.

A 2011 graduate of Cozad High School, Garcia returned there last year to work as a paraeducator with bilingual students. A former varsity wrestler at Cozad, Garcia also volunteered to assist with the wrestling team.

Garcia’s younger brother Pierro, 19, said Pedro had the gift of “turning a negative situation into a positive one.”

“When our grandpa died, he was the one who was cheering everyone up, telling everyone stories,” Pierro said. “He made everyone smile and laugh.”

Kevin Hopper (web)

Kevin Hopper

Kevin Hopper

Age 60/Longtime UNL employee

Kevin Hopper, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln employee whose university career spanned several decades died Aug. 19 of complications related to COVID-19.

The 60-year-old had worked for more than 40 years for UNL and the NU system.

He most recently was a technical consultant with information technology services in the NU system, which includes institutions in Lincoln, Omaha, Kearney and Curtis. He was still based at UNL, where he started work in 1979 processing information as an input-output clerk.

Hopper was honored in December of last year and wrote a report about his career in which he described changes he had seen in information technology.

“What a wild ride it has been!” he wrote.

He is survived by his wife, Jeri Davenport Hopper, and two sons, Angus and Drake.

Merlene Hughes (web)

Merlene Hughes

Merlene Hughes

Age 67/Packing plant worker

Merlene Hughes’ friends sometimes jokingly called her “The Bookie” because of her penchant to want to place a bet on just about anything. But in the end, it appears one of the biggest gambles the South Sioux City resident ever took was just showing up for work.

She worked in the packaging department of Tyson’s packing plant in Dakota City, a plant so big that in a day it churns out enough beef products to feed 18 million people.

As a precaution, the plant began taking workers’ temperatures, and one day when Hughes showed up for her shift, her temperature was elevated.

She was sent home and began showing other symptoms, including difficulty breathing. She ultimately was hospitalized in intensive care.

Then on May 6 she died. It was her 67th birthday.

Merlene’s friends describe her as a colorful person who worked “very, very hard” to support her kids.

She is survived by her significant other, Charles Hagel; children, Kayla Hagel and Matthew Hagel; sister, Emogene “Emma” Peters; brother, Franklin Bock; and a large extended family.

Paul Ing (web)

Paul Ing

Paul Ing

Age 72/Had just become a grandfather

Anna Ryan's favorite thing about her father was his genuine love of helping others.

Paul Ing had a passion for volunteering, mostly through First United Methodist Church, the Siena Francis House and Spielbound.

"He was generous with everything — his time, his money, his food, his stories, his bad jokes," Ryan said. "He loved to connect with people and help in any way he could, whether it be through preparing and serving food for the homeless, being a mentor to others, striving for social justice, or creating and sharing new ideas."

The 72-year-old was active and in great health when he contracted COVID-19. He died Dec. 6.

"He had just become a grandfather, and he should have had many more years with us and his newborn granddaughter but those years were cut short," Ryan said.

After earning a doctorate in medical genetics, Ing served as a 2nd lieutenant in the U.S. Army until 1974. He then directed the Clinical Cytogenetics laboratory at the University of Miami before coming to Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha. He also began his own catering business, Dim Sum with Ping, and went into business as a partner in PNP Holding Inc. with a good friend.

Ryan said some of her favorite memories with her father include the family's annual Chinese New Year celebration, which involved elaborate meal preparations of steamed barbecue pork buns, pan fried dumplings, steamed shrimp and pork dumplings, mushroom puffs, and other dim sum.

"Everyone loved it so much that my father created a unique in-home catering business based on those celebrations," Ryan said. "At these interactive dinner parties, he would bring some of the dim sum fully prepared but also teach the guests how to wrap the dumplings themselves. He didn’t do it for the money, but because he loved sharing our culture with others and connecting over food."

Ing is survived by his daughters, Leigh Evans and Anna Ryan; granddaughter, Elliot Day Ryan; sisters, Nancy Gough and Debbie O'Riley; Leigh and Anna's mother, Shelley Smith; and nieces and nephews.

Done Kane (web)

Don Kane helped Wayne Teachers College compile a four-year record of 29-7 on the football field and later entered Wayne State’s hall of fame.

Don Kane

Age 90/Retired middle school principal

The biggest crowd ever to see a game in Crete got its money’s worth that Friday night, Nov. 4, 1949.

Doane hosted undefeated Wayne Teachers College (later known as Wayne State). The Wildcats, in front of 4,000, rallied from a 13-7 halftime deficit and took the lead on Don Kane’s 30-yard touchdown pass to Al Bahe, securing a 9-0 season and a Nebraska College Conference championship.

Kane, the first World-Herald state college athlete of the year (1951), died Nov. 4 — 71 years to the day after Wayne’s crowning achievement. He tested positive for COVID-19 at his assisted living facility in Missouri Valley, Iowa. He was 90.

Kane devoted his career to public education in Missouri Valley, most notably as a middle school principal. He officiated thousands of football and basketball games, earning induction into the Iowa Officials Hall of Fame in 2002.

But Kane’s roots were in Nebraska, where he graduated from Stanton High. In college, Kane shined in basketball and track and field, where he dashed 100 yards in 9.8 seconds. He was best known on the football field.

Kane found new passions in retirement. A devoted fan of Nebraska football and Creighton basketball, he showed off his golf achievement on his license plates.

Two holes in one.

Vincent Kershaw (web)

Vincent Kershaw

Vincent Kershaw

Age 91/Family physician

Dr. Vincent Kershaw was a healer of land and people.

The 91-year-old father of six was a family physician in Omaha for 44 years. He also helped found Wapiti Wilderness in the early 1970s to preserve native prairies in Nebraska.

Sons Sean and Jeremy Kershaw remember their dad for his “incredible” work ethic and passion for learning.

“He’d had 30 jobs from age 11 to the time he became a physician,” Sean said. “I think the whole family shares these really amazing memories of camping with him and having adventures with him.”

He always wanted to learn, Jeremy said. "He always tried to find the truth in life and relationships, and we all, I think, picked that up from him."

Vincent died Nov. 17 in Duluth, Minnesota. His survivors include his wife of 56 years, Sandy; and his six children, David, Vincene, Mark, Melissa, Sean, Jeremy and their families.

Frank Kumor (web)

Frank Kumor

Frank Kumor 

Age 71/Bellevue jeweler

On Dec. 8, residents lined the streets of a funeral procession to bid farewell to Frank Kumor. The grandfatherly jeweler had touched many of their lives, either directly or indirectly, through his thoughtful gestures, generosity and community service.

Kumor died Dec. 4 of complications from COVID-19. He was 71.

Flowers and mementos had been placed outside the door of the Kumor’s shop, Erwin’s Jewelry, in Old Towne Bellevue, and tributes filled social media. The procession was intended to allow people to bid a collective farewell, given that a public funeral wasn’t possible due to the coronavirus.

A common experience among Kumor’s children was to be stopped by a random person and told to pass along a “thank you” to their dad.

“Piles of people would tell me, ‘Tell your dad thank you, he really helped me out when I needed a ring and didn’t have any money,’” son Joe Kumor said.

Bellevue Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Rippe said Kumor served on the school board for “all the right reasons.”

“He truly cared and did everything he could, financially and emotionally, to support our students and staff,” Rippe said. 

Kumor donated so many items to fundraisers, clubs, post-proms and other events, “you couldn’t even put a price tag on it,” Rippe said. 

Kumor was preceded in death by his first wife, Peggy; a sister, Loretta; and his parents, Frank and Arlene.

He is survived by his wife, Pat, his sons; Brent, Joe, Ben, John and Andrew; his daughters, Rebecca Zurcher and Elizabeth Williams; two stepchildren, Kim Godinez and David Whisinnand; numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and his siblings, Neil and Carol.

Leland F. Lamberty (web)

 Leland Lamberty

Leland Lamberty

Age 76/North Platte doctor

Longtime Great Plains Health physician Dr. Leland Lamberty died Sept.12 due to complications of COVID-19.

“Dr. Lamberty was loved and respected by all who worked with him,” said Mel McNea, Great Plains Health chief executive officer. “His presence on our medical staff and in the community will be missed. He was a visionary, a mentor and a friend to many. He truly loved practicing medicine and serving his patients, and it showed.”

Lamberty, 76, of North Platte established Family Medicine Associates in 1973. He built a thriving practice and helped grow primary care in North Platte, the hospital said. He recruited several partners over the years, including Dr. Janet Bernard, who joined the practice in 1985 and worked alongside Lamberty for more than 30 years. In 2018, Lamberty led the clinic through a formal partnership with Great Plains Health.

“For nearly 50 years, Dr. Lamberty has been a pillar in our health care community,” said Dr. Michael Simonson, Great Plains Health chief of staff. “He cared deeply about his patients and the practice of medicine. This was evident in his practice, his staff and in his everyday work with patients. He will truly be missed.”

Lamberty is survived by his wife, Jody; daughters, Jennifer Roth, Becky Kempke; son, Garrod Lamberty; grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Charles Maguire (web)

Charles Maguire

Charles Maguire

Age 86/Bus driver, delivered milk

Times weren't always easy in the Maguire household, but the kids knew their dad would work hard to keep food on the table.

That's how daughter Julie Bratt remembers her father, Charles Maguire of Beatrice.

Whether he was delivering milk for Meadow Gold, mowing for the Department of Roads or driving a bus for Beatrice Public Schools, he put in long hours.

Maguire, 86, died May 4. He is survived by his wife Frances; his daughters Julie Bratt, Michelle Waller and Annette Walker; sons David and Darrel; seven grandchildren; a great-grandchild; and his sister, Irene Roberts.

The kids also remember that when it was time to play, Dad was all-in, she said.

"That just meant if we went sledding at the park, he was right in the middle of everything," she said. "If we had a red wagon, he would push us so hard we'd fall over. Yes, we got a lot of skinned knees, but he'd kiss it and make it feel better."

ralph marasco (web)

Ralph Marasco

Ralph Marasco

Age 59/Nebraska's first COVID death

Omaha real estate agent Ralph Marasco grabbed people’s attention with his heart and his humor. By the time he let go, he had usually won them over.

On March 24, Ralph, 59, became the first person to die in Nebraska from COVID-19.

Ralph, known for making people smile, did so even after his death as people recalled his mannerisms and sense of humor.

Ralph's son, Nico Marasco, wrote in a Facebook post: “I can find comfort in the countless stories of how Dad’s life and work decisions were made from his heart first. It’s that heart that brought him closer to God.”

Nico said that he had lost his best friend and co-worker, a man whose moral compass pointed in the right direction.

Ralph is survived by his son, Nico, his sisters and an uncle.

Al Martinez (web)

Al and Dee Martinez

Al Martinez

Age 89/Omaha's first Latino police officer

Al Martinez is remembered as a pacesetter who quietly yet decisively paved the way for many in his church, profession and community.

He was Omaha’s first Latino police officer, serving most of those 33 years in South Omaha, where he grew up.

He was Nebraska’s inaugural Hispanic Man of the Year, chosen by a state agency when it started the annual tribute in 1985.

Perhaps the most pivotal “first” came early on, when he was kissed by a neighbor girl who would become his wife of 70 years. Married as teens, while Al was on leave from the Navy, he and Dee raised five children, three of whom followed in their dad’s footsteps and became police officers.

“Al absolutely was a pillar of the entire community, a stalwart and a leader in so many ways,” said Douglas County Board member Mike Boyle.

Martinez was 89 years old when he died Nov. 9 of Parkinson’s disease complicated by COVID-19.

A veteran of the Korean War and son of Mexican immigrants, Martinez is survived by Dee, their children, and 36 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Dee Martinez said she felt fortunate to have shared a life with a “good-hearted, generous” partner who couldn’t turn away a person in need.

Son Mark Martinez is a retired deputy police chief, the first Latino elected to the Omaha school board and former U.S. marshal for Nebraska. He attributed the path taken by him and siblings Lela, Al Jr., John and Michael to their role-model parents.

Youngest son Michael recalled his dad packing everyone in the car for a road trip to watch him participate in one of his first Special Olympics. “He was always there when I needed him,” he said.

Often, Martinez would pick up another child with special needs or a neighborhood kid going through a tough time to join his family for a College World Series game or other activity. 

Mark said his dad was happiest when he was coaching, encouraging and helping others.

“He has built generations of kids, and if we do our job right, we pass that on, his legacy.”

Steve Maurer (web)

Steve Maurer

Steve Maurer

Age 68/Called 'Papa' by granddaughter

Fate twice smiled on Steve Maurer.

In his 20s when he survived being buried alive in a grain elevator and then in his 30s when he met Roxann Ridenour and her ready-made family.

Over the couple's 33 years together, that family of four daughters multiplied into 13 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren with more on the way.

“We called him papa,” said granddaughter Emily Wehnes. “He was always interested in anything we were doing."

An Air Force veteran, Maurer was the creative, tinkering type. On birthdays, each grandchild received elaborately designed cookies from grandma and grandpa.

Maurer died May 16, after he and his wife contracted COVID-19. He was 68. Roxann Maurer’s symptoms were limited to a bad cough and loss of taste, and she survived.

Other survivors include his mother, Mildred; sister, Rhonda; brother, Mark; and daughters, Heather Gladney, Michele Hoisington and Jacque Bean. He was preceded in death by daughter Heidi Anderson and his father, Conrad Maurer.

Jim McGrath (web)

Jim McGrath

Jim McGrath

Age 77/Ralston wrestling coach

During his 37 years as Ralston High School’s wrestling coach, Jim McGrath coached a dozen state champions and taught hundreds of students.

“He loved working with young people,” his wife Beth McGrath said. “He touched so many kids and had such an impact on them. He has a favorite T-shirt that says, ‘I yell because I care.’”

The 77-year-old father of four died at the Nebraska Medical Center Nov. 17, one week after he was hospitalized with COVID-19.

Jim also had a storied career on the mat. From Long Island, New York, Jim was a two-time state wrestling champ in the late 1950s, a New York state boxing champion and an All-American wrestler at Wayne State College before he went into teaching and coaching.

He is remembered as a “giant in the community” and “fiercely loyal.”

Jim’s survivors include his wife, Beth; and children, Chris Martin, Kelley McGrath, Nicholas McGrath and Colleen McGrath. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Susan McGrath.

Naranjo (web)

Frank Naranjo

Frank Naranjo

Age 92/'Grandpa Frank'

Michelle Naranjo knows exactly what her father would say if he were here now:

“Reach out to your neighbor. Love one another. Take care of each other during this scary time.”

Frank Naranjo, 92, of North Platte died March 30. He was the third person in Nebraska to die of the coronavirus. He was holding hands with Bertha, his wife of more than 72 years, who was also hospitalized with COVID-19 in North Platte and survived.

Even as the Naranjos’ children struggled with not being able to see their parents, Michelle and her brother, Daniel Naranjo, took comfort knowing that their parents were together and grateful for the health care workers who cared for them.

“It was so hard as family not being able to be there,” Daniel said. “With my mom and dad in the same room, we knew there was an incredible amount of love from the nurses and doctors, and their attentiveness. My heroes now are those people who took care of my mom and dad during their time of need.”

Frank is survived by his children Larry, Tony and Betty Naranjo.

He will be remembered as a selfless man, as an “urban cowboy” who had strong faith and as everyone’s “Grandpa Frank.”

Daphne Newton (web)

Daphne Newton

Daphne Newton

Age 57/Nurse, caretaker

During her 37 years as a nurse, and in her everyday life, Daphne Newton was a caretaker.

She was a licensed foster parent, Daphne's sister, Traci Newton said. "She opened her home up to anyone who needed a place to stay."

The 57-year-old mother of three died of COVID-19 complications Nov. 24. She'd spent eight months treating COVID-19 patients at Immanuel Medical Center.

"Before Covid, every Sunday that she was off, dinner was at Daphne's house," Traci said. "Daphne loved to dance and sing. She would also take the entire family to the Amazing Pizza Machine for Christmas."

Daphne's family called her home the "House of Hope."

Greg Peterson (web)

Greg Peterson

Greg Peterson

Age 61/School custodian

Greg Peterson was an active and proud lifetime member of Millard Legion Post #374.

The 61-year-old U.S. Army and Army National Guard veteran died Oct. 29.

Peterson worked in IT for most of his life, and then as a custodian at Abbott Elementary. He enjoyed riding motorcycles, playing cribbage, cooking and fixing things at his home and the Post.

His survivors include his wife, Lisa; children, Alex and Sara; brothers and sisters and many friends.

Robert Puhalla Sr. (web)

Deacon Robert Puhalla Sr.

Robert Puhalla Sr.

Age 73/Grand Island deacon

Robert Puhalla Sr., a permanent deacon at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Grand Island who died Sept. 29 of COVID-19, was a busy and popular man.

Puhalla, a U.S. Army veteran who was 73, was at the church seven days a week. He often delivered the homily at daily Mass, which begins at 7 a.m.

After Mass, he would have breakfast with his church friends at the Cow Palace. Later in the morning, he took his dog, Gracie, on a two-mile walk.

His daughters, Ann Marie Pedersen and Keisha Mudloff, say he was unpredictable and always on the go. He didn’t like to sit still.

“We just didn’t ever know what to expect from him next,” Pedersen said.

Puhalla liked to do household projects. His latest job was rebuilding a gazebo that he’d built for his wife, Susan, in 1995. She died in 2016.

Roger Ryman (web)

Roger Ryman with his granddaughter, Katelyn Ryman. 

Roger Ryman

Age 70/Wrote to his grandchildren

Roger Ryman had everything to live for, specifically seven grandchildren — the Magnificent 7 as he called them — and their parents. And for them, he had been as careful as possible in this time of masks and handwashing and physical distancing.

If these grandchildren didn't know how much he loved them by his presence in their lives, they know now because of a surprise gift of 23 years of letters found among the 70-year-old’s belongings after he died Oct. 20.

“Those words are hard to read knowing he wanted to be around for as much as he could, and he won't be around for some of the big life events that are coming up between all of us grandkids,”  said granddaughter Katelyn Ryman.

Roger’s daughter and son, Cindy Ryman Yost and Tony Willis, had especially worried Willis' 3-year-old daughter, Ava, would not remember him or know how much he loved her.

But she will know, Yost said, because in those three years, he had already written her eight letters.

The letters to Katelyn had started in September 1999, at the time of her birth, telling her he was living in California, a cowboy managing a ranch, and starting to sell real estate.

Once he returned to Lincoln, her grandfather would come to every event of hers he could in Omaha — track meets, plays, recitals, holidays.

“He was truly trying to make up for the lost time,” she said. “I think of my upcoming college graduation. I'll be the first grandchild to graduate from college, and he won't be there.”

Roger is survived by his children, Cindy Ryman Yost, Justin Ryman, Tony Willis; and his seven grandchildren.

LAURA SAF (web)

Laura Saf

Laura Saf

Age 66/Trailblazer for Nebraska golf

Laura Saf embraced golf as a child and became a national rules official and administrator in the sport.

Saf, who was living in Lincoln and was a native of Oakland, died Dec. 2 at age 66.

She was 8 years old when her parents introduced her to golf.

Saf became the first woman on the Nebraska Golf Association board.

She was the host club’s general chairman for the 1996 U.S. Women’s Amateur at Firethorn Golf Club, which launched a 25-year career in women’s golf administration. She was a Women’s Trans National Golf Association board member and served on four United States Golf Association committees.

She was a rules official for 16 U.S. Women’s Opens, 11 U.S. Women’s Amateurs, two men’s U.S. Opens and the 2013 U.S. Senior Open in Omaha, a British Women’s Open and a men’s U.S. Amateur.

Saf served on the NGA board since 2002. In 2012 she received the Dr. Herbert H. Davis and Herbert H. Davis Jr. Memorial Award from the Nebraska Golf Hall of Fame for her contributions to golf in the state.

Don and Marie Stoltenberg (web)

Don and Marie Stoltenberg 

Donald and Marie Stoltenberg

Both age 90/Died four days apart

The last thing Donald Stoltenberg said to his wife of 69 years before she died of COVID-19 on Nov. 21 was that he’d be with her soon.

He died four days later.

“I know they wanted to be together,” Tiffanie Landon said of her 90-year-old grandparents. “It doesn’t make it any easier, but I know in heaven they’re dancing to polka music, playing dominos and bowling.”

Donald and Marie Stoltenberg of Grand Island always called each other “Mother” and “Father,” they were always holding hands, never forgot a face, loved to bowl and rarely missed a grandchild's activity.

“Everybody talks about how warm they were and how welcome they made everyone feel,” Donald and Marie’s daughter Janet Boltz said.

Donald was a proud U.S. Army veteran.

At 16, Marie taught in a one-room country school for three years in Hamilton County.

The couple met at the Glovera Ballroom in Grand Island, where they spent many nights dancing. They were married on Aug. 19, 1951, and had four children.

Janet said she’ll never forget when her dad, who served on the Northwest High School Board for 20 years, received his GED in 1987.

“My dad wasn’t able to go to high school because he had to work, and so while he was on the school board he earned his GED,” she said. “I’ll never forget all the little grandkids lined up to congratulate grandpa.”

Donald and Marie are survived by their children, Janet Boltz, Dennis Stoltenberg, Wayne Stoltenberg and Colleen Stutzman; 13 grandchildren; and 22 great-grandchildren.

Wayne Stanley 2 (web)

Wayne Stanley, of South Sioux City, Nebraska, died of COVID-19 at age 77 on May 6. He was a Vietnam veteran and active in veterans' groups. 

Wayne Stanley

Age 77/Vietnam veteran

Wayne Stanley of South Sioux City died of COVID-19 on May 6. The 77-year-old Vietnam veteran was known for his outgoing, friendly demeanor.

His wife of nearly 49 years, Jelane Stanley, said Wayne "was just a good guy all around, always smiling.”

Over the years as Wayne drove his delivery route for an agriculture company, regular customers learned that a delivery from Wayne frequently came with a half-hour conversation.

Wayne is survived by his wife; his children, Stacy Schlickbernd, Barbie Wurth and Rolland Stanley; and six grandchildren.

carlosandlydia (web)

Carlos and Lydia Tibbs, son and mother, died of complications from COVID-19.

Lydia and Carlos Tibbs

Ages 50 and 34/Mother and son

Mother and son Lydia and Carlos Tibbs were an inseparable duo known for their joyful embrace of life and of the people they met.

Their deaths from COVID-19 left grieving loved ones who say they could count on the two to make their days brighter.

“A hole doesn’t even begin to describe it,” said Maurice Cullum, Carlos’ father. Even though he and Lydia never married, the three were family, Cullum said.

“If you were in her life, you knew you were around a great person,” he said. “The number one thing to say about her is that she loved the Lord, she loved ministry.”

Lydia died Aug. 17, and Carlos sometime late Aug. 18 or early Aug. 19, Cullum said. Both had underlying health problems, he said.

The 34-year-old Tibbs was a popular up-and-coming comedian who had been honored in February as 2019’s outstanding comedian at the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards. He also worked with youths and families for the Omaha Housing Authority.

Sal Issaka, Tibbs’ supervisor at OHA, said he has no doubts that Carlos Tibbs changed lives. Tibbs was a community outreach coordinator and had an office in the Spencer Homes public housing complex.

In some of Omaha’s poorest homes, Issaka said, there are kids who went to college and families whose lives improved because of Carlos Tibbs.

“We underestimate the power of someone like Carlos,” Issaka said. “A smile, kind words ... the smallest act of caring. He helped a lot of our residents turn their lives around.”

Lydia Tibbs, 50, was an event organizer for Marriott Regency in Omaha, where she used her work to bring others’ dreams to life, said Brandee Alexander, her former daughter-in-law. Lydia Tibbs was active in local churches, with puppetry a means of ministry.

“The Tibbses are beautiful people,” said Alexander, who was married to Carlos Tibbs for five of the 10 years they were together. “They covered you with their love.”

Tom Vint (web)

Tom and wife Georgie Vint.

Tom Vint

Age 72/Longtime sportswriter

Mandy Vint Troia still made kringla for the holidays.

Baking cookies during 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 Tom’s specialties.

Tom, who learned to bake from his mother, knew the “Grandma secrets” for making the cookies. Cousins would call or text him for advice, which he graciously gave.

But this year, Mandy baked the cookies without her dad.

Tom, a longtime Associated Press sports writer and Omaha AP bureau staffer, died Sept. 2 after a monthlong battle with COVID-19. He was 72.

Mandy, who marked her 43rd birthday the day her father died, said he will be missed by many.

“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.”

Tom is survived by his wife Georgie; son, Tim Vint; daughter, Mandy Troia; four grandchildren; and a large extended family.

Phyllis Wachholtz (web)

Phyllis Wachholtz

Phyllis Wachholtz

Age 99/Wrote out her recipes

Phyllis Wachholtz made summers fun for her two granddaughters, inviting each to her Plainview home for a week solo, and then together for a week as a threesome.

Their days were spent making all sorts of things, with baking at the top of the list. Rice Krispy bars, cakes, scotcheroos.

"She was a loving, neat lady," her granddaughter, Jenn Stoj said.

Wachholtz wrote out her favorite recipes for Stoj when she married — and included her legendary fail, "Gray Icing," with a sly "Ha, Ha" at the end.

Wachholtz died Aug. 18 of COVID-19. She was 99.

"She didn't have any issues in the whole world until COVID hit her," Stoj said. "I just plain miss her."

She is survived by her daughter, Georgia E. Nelson of Papillion, two granddaughters, Jenn of Omaha and Rachel Morris of Oregon; four great-grandchildren; brothers Hoyt Sirek of Orchard, Nebraska, and Arnold Gutz of Osmond, Nebraska.​

Ming Wang (web)

Ming Wang

Ming Wang

Age 71/Opened Papillion restaurant

Ming Wang gave of himself.

After opening Ming’s Restaurant in 1989, Wang wanted to share his success by helping others, his daughter, Anne Peterson, said.

Peterson said her father would help out customers who became his friends. Each year at the Chinese New Year, Wang threw a party at the restaurant in Papillion for dozens of family members and friends.

He loved his wife Lu, whom he knew since kindergarten, his two children, Anne and Ping, and especially his seven grandchildren. He loved cooking, feeding people and even watching people eat, his daughter said.

Ping Wang runs the restaurant now, after his father claimed to retire in 2003.

Ming Wang contracted COVID-19 during a March cruise with his wife to New Zealand. Wang suffered from the effects of the virus for more than two months at Nebraska Medical Center.

Wang died June 8 at age 71.

It shouldn’t have been this way, Peterson said.

“He should be here,” she said. “I thought he would dance with my daughters at their weddings some day. I thought we'd get to have him until he was a feisty, gray-haired 95-year old.”

Joel A. Watts (web)

Joel A. Watts

Joel A. Watts

Age 56/Never lacked for friends

Joel A. Watts lived and loved fully.

"Differently-abled" as his mother said due to Down syndrome, he never lacked for friends, or a smile, or something to do.

Watts died July 28 at age 56 of complications from COVID-19. He was the last of Lois Watts' small family. Her husband, Darrell, died in 2017, their daughter, Sylvia Ann Kelly, died in 2018.

Lois Watts said her son enjoyed working with his hands, including yard work and gardening, and sharing produce from his vegetable garden.

“He really enjoyed life, even the smallest thing could be an adventure,” Lois Watts said.

Others mattered greatly to Watts.

His mother recalled how, during Special Olympics competitions, he’d stop before the finish line and wait for others to catch up, so everyone could finish together.

“He was born with a sense of cooperation and enjoyed being part of a group,” she said. “Rarely, if ever, was he not able to make friends with someone. I give everybody in his life credit, he was a happy person.”

Helen Jones Woods (web)

Helen Jones Woods with daughter Cathy Hughes

Helen Jones Woods

Age 96/Made history playing trombone

Helen Jones Woods made history playing the trombone with an all-woman, multiracial big band that traveled the world, defying both gender and Jim Crow bias.

She went on to raise, with her husband in their North Omaha neighborhood, four high-achieving kids — including one who rose to be the first African American woman to chair a publicly held corporation.

Woods was 96 years old when she died July 25 of COVID-19 in Sarasota, Florida.

Though her life didn’t start or end in Omaha, she considered this city home, and it was where her remains have returned, said daughter Cathy Hughes, founder of Urban One, the largest African American owned and operated broadcast company in the nation.

In addition to Hughes, of the Washington, D.C., area, Woods is survived by children Billy, a businessman in Omaha; Bobby, a doctor in Los Angeles; and Jackie Woods Williams, a journalist-turned-real estate broker of Sarasota, where Woods later lived.

Omahans know Woods beyond her role with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the boundary-bashing jazz and swing ensemble of the 1930s and 1940s that influential pianist and bandleader Earl Hines would refer to as “the first freedom riders.”

“My mother was always an activist,” Hughes said. “She saw herself as an underdog, trying to climb out of her environment and circumstance. And she believed that along the way, you take someone with you.”

Indeed, Woods and DePorres Club leaders, including Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown, made a difference in public transportation and more.

“She was part of integrating the bus system in Omaha, Nebraska,” Hughes said. 

Woods was honored in 2005 as one of the inaugural members of the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame. When she opened the invitation, she told a World-Herald reporter then, she thought it was phony. “I thought the world had forgotten about us,” she said.

Hughes teared up talking about the flood of flowers and national interview requests since her mom’s death. 

But Woods was not about craving attention, Hughes said.

“It didn’t matter to her,” Hughes said. “She’ll always be remembered for her loving care of others.”


Nebraskans lost to COVID-19

jwade@owh.com, 402-444-1067

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Nancy Gaarder helps cover public safety and weather events as an editor on The World-Herald's breaking news desk. Follow her on Twitter @gaarder. Email: nancy.gaarder@owh.com

Jessica Wade covers breaking news, crime and the Omaha zoo. Follow her on Twitter @Jess_Wade_OWH. Phone: 402-444-1067

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