As Idaho approaches 2,000 COVID-19 deaths, families remember those they have lost

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Nicole Blanchard, Nicole Foy, Hayley Harding
·14 min read
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On March 26, 2020, Idaho reported its first three deaths of the coronavirus pandemic — two men in Blaine County and another in Canyon County.

Since then, Idaho’s death count has reached 1,993 people, nearly a quarter of those from Ada County and nearly 300 in neighboring Canyon County.

Though the coronavirus pandemic and its death toll have made headlines for more than a year, little has been shared publicly about the Idahoans who died. Just two of Idaho’s seven health districts continue to announce the age and sex of those who’ve died in connection with COVID-19, and Health and Welfare statistics pare each death down to sparse details: age, sex, race and ethnicity.

Obituaries have offered a glimpse. Months of memorials in the Idaho Statesman mention deaths due to COVID-19, with the loved ones describing tenacious businessmen, grandmothers with green thumbs, doting grandfathers and beloved outdoorswomen. Idaho lost “beautiful,” “humble,” “patient” people in the pandemic.

The Idaho Statesman talked to several Idaho families about the loved ones who were among the hundreds who have died of COVID-19.

Family members said it’s been hard to lose someone to COVID-19 and watch other Idahoans refuse public health precautions or call the pandemic a hoax. Greg Winther, whose father, PJ Winther, died of COVID-19 in December, said he hopes his dad’s death will be a wake-up call for some who’ve doubted the severity of the disease. Too often, though, he said he has heard “callous” responses.

“I’ll think I’m making an impact with people when I say, ‘My dad died of COVID’ … and they’ll say, ‘Oh, well he was 96.’ ”

Nancy Johnson-Cassulo, whose mother, Betty Johnson, died of COVID-19 in November, said she’s had a similar experience.

“It has made me extremely frustrated with people that still don’t take it seriously, that refuse to wear their masks, that call it a hoax,” she said. “It’s like, wait a minute, you know me. You know my mom. How can you have that impression of this virus?”

Some were unable to spend last minutes with their loved ones. Oftentimes, families couldn’t gather to celebrate their lives.

The Statesman talked to the families of nine people who died related to COVID-19. Here’s what we learned about them from those who loved them most.

Betty Johnson, 91, of Nampa

Betty Johnson, center, with loved ones during her 90th birthday celebration in September 2019.
Betty Johnson, center, with loved ones during her 90th birthday celebration in September 2019.

Betty Johnson died of COVID-19 on Nov. 25, 2020.

Her daughter, Nancy Johnson-Cassulo, said friends and family meant everything to Betty. She loved having guests over to entertain and was an avid sports fan.

“She would’ve just went bananas over the Gonzaga game (in the Final Four),” Johnson-Cassulo said. “…She always said you can never be too loud at a sporting event. We always knew where she was in the stands, no matter what.”

Johnson-Cassulo said Betty became ill while living at an assisted living facility, though it’s not clear where she contracted the virus. Her COPD put her at high risk for COVID-19, and she was hospitalized at St. Luke’s Nampa, where family visited her on the other side of the first-floor window.

Johnson-Cassulo said Betty died peacefully with family nearby.

“She was completely in control to the very end,” Johnson-Cassulo said. “A lot of what I’ve heard about COVID is people are isolated, their family isn’t with them when they pass, they’re on ventilators. A lot of it seems very much like a struggle and very lonely. So we were blessed that our experience wasn’t that way.”

Betty will be remembered by children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as her many friends, some of whom she’d known since high school.

“The conversation she had with all of us (before she died) was, ‘I have had such a good life,’ ” Johnson-Cassulo said. “She didn’t have any complaints, and she was so excited to be reunited with my dad again.”

Rose Ann Spath, 53, of Wilder

Rose Ann Spath died of COVID-19 on Nov. 20, 2020.

Her daughter Christina Barron said she and her mother, who lived together with Barron’s toddler, had no idea where they contracted COVID-19. But their unique vulnerabilities — Spath had diabetes and Barron was pregnant — eventually hospitalized them both. Barron was discharged with few remaining complications, but Spath was hospitalized in the ICU of West Valley Hospital in Caldwell with breathing problems, and later pneumonia, for about a month. The disease attacked her lungs, Barron said, and she was intubated for more than two weeks.

“The COVID was just eating and eating at her,” Barron said.

Spath’s lungs were ultimately unable to recover. She died surrounded by her siblings and her children.

Rose Ann Spath, 53, of Wilder
Rose Ann Spath, 53, of Wilder

“To lose Rose at the young age of 53, knowing that she was leaving Christina, knowing that she was leaving behind (granddaughter) Ciara, knowing that she was never going to meet her second granddaughter — that broke my heart,” said her cousin, Raquel Reyes.

Spath was born in Port La Vaca, Texas, graduated from Wilder High School and attended Boise State University. She loved her work in tax preparation, watching Hallmark movies, and spending time with her family. Spath made cookies for every occasion, and did taxes for everyone in the family. She was known to respond to loved ones’ problems with help, care and the common refrain, “Pray about it.”

“She was very rooted in her faith,” Reyes said.

Her family wants her to be remembered for how fun she was, her giving nature, how her expressions would always betray her emotions — usually, her excitement. Barron said before they became ill, Spath returned from a women’s retreat excited about a new favorite Bible verse, Psalm 118:24, and was reciting it often.

“This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

PJ Winther, 96, of Nampa

PJ Winther, left, and son Greg Winther at Winther Music in 2001.
PJ Winther, left, and son Greg Winther at Winther Music in 2001.

Paul James “PJ” Winther died of COVID-19 on Dec. 13, 2020.

PJ was a Navy pilot in World War II and a community-minded Nampa resident who spent time in the Masonic Fraternity and Lions Club and served as potentate for the El Korah Shriners.

“People will remember him as a very positive, honest, straightforward man,” his son, Greg Winther, said.

After serving in WWII, PJ took over Winther Music from his father, running locations in Boise and Nampa. He enjoyed all kinds of music and played piano, organ and glockenspiel.

“I never knew my dad to be dishonest. All the years he was in business, he treated people fairly,” Greg Winther said.

PJ was involved in Boy Scouts when his sons were young, sat on the board of Mercy Hospital and loved taking RV trips with his wife, Della, who died in April of 2020. He was an outgoing man who enjoyed spending time with his family — five children, 13 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren.

“We have a very close family, and Dad was the center of it,” Greg Winther said.

At 96 years old, PJ was in good health, his son said, even mowing his one-acre property regularly. PJ got COVID-19 from a plumber who worked on his house and later called to say he’d tested positive for the disease.

“COVID came on him very suddenly,” Greg said. “It was a few days after (the plumber called) that he showed symptoms. He only lasted two weeks with it.”

Dave Robinette, 67, of Boise

Dave Robinette
Dave Robinette

Dave Robinette died of COVID-19 on March 31, 2021.

Robinette was a lifelong musician who was known in Boise for various projects, including the original Solution Brothers and The Shield.

“Growing up, he would knock on people’s doors and say, ‘I’ll sing “Hound Dog” for a nickel,’ ” recalled his wife, Tymilynn Uhl-Robinette. “He’d get a nickel and go down to the store and buy a Baby Ruth.”

Robinette was a guitar instructor at Dorsey Music for years, but he was also a talented singer who could play many instruments, including violin and bass.

“I always called him the uncanny mimic,” friend and former bandmate Jon Hyneman said. “He had such a good ear and such good inflection and intonation in his voice.”

Robinette counted a show at the Grand Ole Opry as one of his greatest achievements, Uhl-Robinette said, and was especially proud that he was able to play one of his original songs there.

Robinette was also talented at drawing and took any opportunity to be creative. He was patient and generous. He took joy in sharing and playing music, even after surviving a stroke in 2006 that left him with painful nerve damage.

“He never complained about the pain,” Uhl-Robinette said. “When things were rotten, he always picked himself up and got back in there.”

Robinette fought COVID-19 for seven weeks, six of which he spent hospitalized. Uhl-Robinette said eight days he spent in isolation were the first time they’d been apart since they began dating in 2008.

Uhl-Robinette said Dave was two songs away from finishing an album of original songs when he died. She plans to finish the album for him.

“That was his dream,” she said. “He wanted his legacy. He just wanted to be known for something.”

Asunción, 85, and José Correa, 87, of Nampa

Longtime loves and devoted grandparents Asunción and José Correa died only a week apart in April 2020, both due to COVID-19.

They spent their lives working to provide for 14 children and many grandchildren, mostly as migrant farmworkers. They eventually settled in Nampa, living with and near their children and grandchildren when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Idaho.

Just a month after the pandemic began in Idaho, the coronavirus swept through their extended family. Granddaughter Alma De León, who was helping to care for them at the time, estimated a total of 19 family members, including herself and her grandparents, contracted the virus.

Asunción did not want to stay in the hospital and be separated from her family members, so her children and grandchildren opted to care for the grandparents at home. Asunción died on April 20.

Alma De León lost her grandparents to COVID-19 earlier this year. Asunción and José Correa were migrant farmworkers who built a life in Idaho for 14 children and countless grandchildren.
Alma De León lost her grandparents to COVID-19 earlier this year. Asunción and José Correa were migrant farmworkers who built a life in Idaho for 14 children and countless grandchildren.

The family believed José had already “beat” COVID-19 by the time his wife died. His fever had receded, and he seemed to have regained his sense of taste. They delayed relaying the news for as long as possible because of his dementia, past heart problems and fragile state of recovery. But he kept asking for Asunción, and they eventually told him the truth.

He was heartbroken, De León said, and stopped eating. He died April 27.

“You have that guilt,” De León told the Statesman in 2020. “A lot of family members didn’t get to say goodbye (at a funeral), they were so scared they were going to get sick.”

The family described their grandparents as inseparable, caring, giving and deeply devoted to each other.

Larry Dean Lynch, 55, of Payette

Larry Dean Lynch was the life of the party.

He went to college for electrical engineering, his daughter Becky told the Statesman, before moving home to pursue a relationship with his first wife, Lesley. He joined the Coast Guard, taking his family, including his children Shawn, Becky and Jason, with him around the country until he got divorced in 1998. In 2007, he married Julie, who made him happier than anyone believed possible, Becky said, and gained stepdaughter Caity.

He loved riding his motorcycle — usually without his helmet, Becky said, as he believed God would take him when it was his time to go. He celebrated every holiday, usually with his family and friends at his side.

“He always wanted to make sure everybody else is having a good time,” Becky said. “He was the best host.”

When he first got sick, he didn’t think it would be COVID-19, but his test came back positive a few days later. He ended up in the hospital with chest pains the night he got his results. He deteriorated rapidly. His organs took a beating, doctors told his family, and he needed to be transported to Boise for his kidneys.

He died in the ambulance on the way there.

“We were so close,” Becky said. “He was my rock, the person that rooted for me the most in sports and at school. It’s terrible, because it’s something that could have been prevented.”

Guadalupe ‘Lupe’ Garcia, 61, of Wilder

Guadalupe “Lupe” Garcia died due to COVID-19 on Aug. 20, 2020.

The longtime resident of Wilder and one-term Wilder City Council member was described by many as the “unsung hero” of the community he loved. He was born in Phoenix and graduated from Wilder High School.

He died a few weeks after a sudden hospitalization in West Valley Medical Center’s ICU in Caldwell. Although family members didn’t know why he was ill at first, he tested positive for the coronavirus at the hospital. His death certificate confirms he died of complications from COVID-19.

Wilder Councilman Lupe Garcia said he was paralyzed 36 years ago when he drove drunk and crashed his car, rolling it four times and breaking his spine. Today, Garcia said, he counsels young people to avoid his mistakes.
Wilder Councilman Lupe Garcia said he was paralyzed 36 years ago when he drove drunk and crashed his car, rolling it four times and breaking his spine. Today, Garcia said, he counsels young people to avoid his mistakes.

Garcia spent most of his life using a wheelchair, after a car accident as a young man broke his spine. He rarely spoke of it or let it affect his life, his friends and family said, but he used his personal experience and platform to advocate for better access for Wilder residents living with disabilities.

Garcia was a commissioner on Wilder’s Planning and Zoning Commission at the time of his death, where he also served for several years before joining the city council. His election to the Wilder City Council in 2015 helped the city of Wilder make history and national headlines when the four-member city council and mayor became the first all-Latino city government in Idaho history.

His sister Tila Godina — a sitting Wilder City Council member — said Garcia, who never married, was passionate about his family and his town. He was one of nine siblings, including Godina.

“For my brother, his community was everything,” Godina said. “Wilder was everything for him.”

L.R. ‘Bob’ Barnes, 96, of Twin Falls

Lawrence Robert Barnes, known by most as Bob, grew up in Rupert but spent much of his life in Twin Falls, the Treasure Valley and Billings, Montana.

A veteran of the Marine Corps, he was proud of his service and wore his Marine Corps hat every single day. That went on for years, his son Dave said, even though sometimes “you could smell it from 10 feet away.” Bob loved telling stories about his time in the South Pacific almost as much as he loved hunting and fishing.

LR “Bob” Barnes, pictured here on his 94th birthday, died in December after contracting COVID-19. He loved hunting, fishing and his family.
LR “Bob” Barnes, pictured here on his 94th birthday, died in December after contracting COVID-19. He loved hunting, fishing and his family.

Bob also loved his family. That took many forms: He served as a Cub Scout and Boy Scout leader for his sons, Dave, Don and Jack (and got really good at building pinewood derby cars, Dave said). He ran the R.V. Barn in Twin Falls for many years with his family. He was proud of his service in the Marine Corps, but he never encouraged his family to join. (His sons did not; three of his grandsons did.)

Once COVID-19 started to spread in Idaho, his family was able to visit him a few times on a patio or through a window, although it was hard to communicate with him.

Eventually, the disease made its way into the nursing home where he lived. On Dec. 9, Dave got the call his dad had tested positive.

“On the night of the 16th, I got to try to talk to him, but it was awful,” Dave said. “His voice changed when he heard me tell him I loved him, but he was struggling to breathe and had a fever. … Somebody didn’t care enough to protect others, and they ended up killing my dad.”

The next morning, Bob died. Dave said he didn’t blame the facility for his dad’s death, but rather those in the larger community who failed to take steps to keep him safe.

“He was my dad, and I loved him,” Dave said. “I didn’t always like him, but I sure did love him.”