Remembering Vermonters lost to the coronavirus

A linchpin of the Ludlow community who took detailed notes during Town Meeting just weeks before falling ill. An immigrant from rural India who worked to retain her culture while seeking a better life for her kids and grandkids. A high school basketball star who traveled the globe as a federal agent but stayed rooted in Proctor. These are just a few of the dozens of Vermonters lost in the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.

Those who die from Covid-19 typically take their last breaths with only health care providers by their side. Due to hospital restrictions, family members may experience their loved one’s final moments through a phone or video connection, in many cases calling from just miles down the road. Gathering for in-person memorial services, especially to honor those who were avid churchgoers, has become impossible for the time being.

But those obstacles haven’t stopped family members from remembering and celebrating their most cherished moments with those who have died. In recent days, VTDigger has begun collecting stories about these Vermonters’ lives. We’re compiling them here. 

If you’ve lost a loved one to the virus and would like to share a remembrance, please get in touch. Interviews with family members have been edited and condensed.

Thomas Christian, 81, ‘always knew somebody’ in Orwell and beyond

Thomas Christian
Thomas Christian drove a mini car in parades across the state. He died in Burlington from Covid-19 on April 10, 2020. Courtesy Julie Christian

Thomas Christian was born in Rutland in 1938. He lived in Orwell his entire life, but traveled often — first as a long distance truck driver, making deliveries across the country; and then as an active member of the Cairo Shrine in Rutland, driving a mini car in parades across the state. Tom met his wife Cynthia, who grew up in nearby Brandon, when he transferred to Brandon’s high school.

Cynthia Christian: We used to go square dancing every weekend. On Friday night we would go to Lake Hortonia, there was a dance hall there. Saturday night, we’d go to Cove Point in Leicester, which is just north of Brandon. That was a great dance place. Then if we could find any more, we would go to them. We loved to dance.

I told him that I wouldn’t get married until I was 21, so if he wanted me he had to wait. Must be he did, because he waited.

Shortly after we got married, we started building the house. It was a Grossman home — we bought it as a package. Built it right from the ground up, put every piece of wood in where it went. I’m still living here.

It was tough sometimes. In the beginning he was home every night. He picked up milk, and he’d always have to take it to Boston or somewhere. But then he went to work for Carris Reels, and there, you leave Sunday and come back Friday. 

Julie Christian (Tom’s daughter): On occasion us kids could go with him. He had two, three day trips us kids could go on if we wanted to. There was one I recall when I was really young — I was probably four or five years old. We went to Kentucky. I probably wasn’t supposed to be in the truck, and when we got to the weigh stations I had to hide.

He loved his work. He always met people. 

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Naomi McCullough, 89, provided care in nursing homes and psych hospitals

Naomi McCullough
Naomi McCullough, who worked as a nurse in elder care and psychiatric facilities throughout her career, died from Covid-19 on April 11, 2020. Courtesy Tommie Murray.

Naomi McCullough died at Birchwood Terrace Rehab and Healthcare in Burlington on April 11, 2020. McCullough was born in 1930 in Clover, Pennsylvania. Her father was a coal miner, and her daughter, Tommie Murray, described Clover as “one of those towns that you read about that was owned by the company.” When Murray was 13, her father died, leaving McCullough to raise four children on her own.

Tommie Murray: Mom relied on me a lot. At that point, she didn’t drive. She’d never written a check. Dad had taken care of all the business things: where we were going to live, and paying the bills. So [his death] was a huge adjustment for her.

I think that she was scared to death, but I think that’s what made her stronger. Once she got a driver’s license, she thought, well, maybe I could go back to school and become a nurse. She worked nights so that she would be home with the younger kids after school. She knew that I was home during the night. 

Six or seven years later, she moved us all to Vermont. She was kind of spontaneous at times, and all of a sudden she was looking for a different job. She happened to look in a nursing journal and saw that they needed nurses at what was at that point DeGoesbriand Hospital. It was with a picture of Lake Champlain. And she just decided, well, that sounds like a good place to go. So that’s where we went.

The day that she took the job, she went out and bought a house [in Burlington’s Old North End]. She comes back to Pennsylvania and says, “I got the job and I bought a house and we’re moving to Vermont.” That comes from the woman who years before hadn’t even written a check, and all of a sudden is doing this all alone.

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Michael Rappold, 77, lifelong skier and devoted husband

Michael Rappold
Michael Rappold, who loved skiing and visiting national parks with his wife Rae, died of Covid-19 on March 24, 2020. Courtesy Rae Rappold.

Mike Rappold was born in San Mateo, California, but a love of skiing eventually brought him to Vermont. Mike worked for several skiwear companies throughout his career, including a stint at Newport-based Slalom Ski Wear in the early 1970s. That’s where he met his future wife, Rae. 

Rae Rappold: We became best friends. He was already married; I was engaged to be married. We went about our separate lives. And then 20 years later we said, we’ve had enough of this, and we just wanted to be together. That’s probably a little unkosher, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Mike was just so compassionate. When people say “your better half” — I can have a challenging personality, but he took it with a grain of salt. He knew that no matter my mood, that I deeply loved him, and he the other way. He hated to argue. So when an argument was needed, forget it — he wouldn’t argue back. 

He was so kind to everybody, whether they were rich or poor. He grew up in Bryn Mawr [Pennsylvania], which is supposedly a snotty community. His sister was chairman of the volunteer committee for the Philadelphia Orchestra. We went to one event ten or 15 years ago, and the maestro from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who is a pretty impressive person — Mike got right in there and schmoozed with him and talked with him, just like he would do with a Northeast Kingdom farm boy.

The people that have come out of the woodwork to tell me stories like that — just last Sunday, a gal that worked with us when we were at Slalom and then at Bogner together called and said, “I was so devastated because you two, the love in your eyes every time, you were just meant to be together.” She just brought me to tears. Because it was a little scandalous at the time, and not everybody approved. But she saw it for what it really was.

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David Reissig, 82, federal agent and Proctor basketball legend

David Reissig died at Northwestern Medical Center in St. Albans on March 30, 2020. Courtesy Kris Owens.

David Reissig was born in St. Albans in 1938 and spent his formative years in Proctor, where his father was a vice president at the Vermont Marble Company. There, he met Ione Baccei, who came from a line of stone carvers. Kris Owens, Reissig’s daughter, described the union as “Two very different families on two very opposite sides of the bridge.” 

David and Ione married in 1960. They lived in Burlington and St. Albans, and David’s work as a special agent for the U.S. Customs Agency took him across the globe. But the pair stayed rooted in Proctor, Owens said.

Kris Owens: He would always say, when he refers to home, for him it always goes back to Proctor. My dad was so nostalgic about it. To this day, he would travel back and forth. He would drive by his house, drive by the baseball field. He loved going to the gym. He could walk up the sledding hill that was there. He would skate on the rink once a year. 

My mom was a cheerleader; my dad was the big basketball player. The Rutland Herald did a thing on my dad, and they referred to him as a legend. I never thought of him as a big deal growing up. But apparently, he was kind of the talk of the town, the local hero.

Based on what everyone has said to me, they would say that even given all of that, he was probably the most sincere and unassuming person you could meet. You would never know it from talking to him. It never went to his head. Which is my dad in a nutshell. 

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Rama Rawal, 86, maintained Indian roots in New England

Rama Rawal
Rama Rawal, who died on April 1 from Covid-19, at the People’s Climate March in Burlington in September 2019. Courtesy Rajesh Rawal.

Rama Rawal came to the United States in 1968, moving to Bridgeport, Connecticut, from Siddhpur, a town in the Indian state of Gujarat. Rama’s son Rajesh calls Siddhpur “a teeny tiny place, not on any maps.” There, Rama and her husband were elites: he worked as a lawyer and she taught English in a private school. But they came to the U.S. in the hopes of giving Rajesh and his brother, who were then 11 and 10 years old, more opportunities.

Rajesh Rawal: We came here in September 1968. It was actually September 13, 1968. And my mom would say Friday the 13th, which is what September 13, 1968, was a very lucky day for the whole family.

She worked at General Electric Company in Stamford, Connecticut, for 17 years. She was a personal accounting clerk. So, paperwork and stuff. My dad was an expediter in a factory, and my dad also worked part time at Cumberland Farms. Coming from being a lawyer and private school teacher and having “servants” and other help around the house, it was a big change. But it was really for the opportunity for the kids to have. 

We came in ‘68. In ‘73, they bought the house in Stamford, Connecticut, and that’s the house that she lived in for the next 47-plus years, which she loved. She knew everybody in town, especially all the Indians. Anytime there was an Indian that landed, my dad or my mom would go across the street, introduce themselves, invite them to the house. They all remember my mom and dad as the people that took them in, showed them around, helped them out. 

My mom was very adamant in maintaining her culture and her identity. We grew up vegetarian: no eggs, no meat, fish. She cooked every day. She wore the sari. 

She also knew that if she didn’t do something, it would be forgotten. For example, even though she was a high school teacher teaching English in a private school in India, she refused to speak to us in English when we landed here, and only spoke to us in Gujarati — which is a state language from the state of Gujarat — because she didn’t want us to forget. I’ve been in this country 51 years, and I’m a red-blooded American in every sense. And yet, I remember my language because of my mom.

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Robert Kirkbride, 93, WWII vet and linchpin in Ludlow

Robert Kirkbride
Robert Kirkbride in the Ludlow July 4th parade in 2019. Kirkbride died at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction on March 19, 2020. Courtesy Deborah Khiel.

Robert Kirkbride lived in Vermont for his entire 93 years, except when he was serving overseas. He was born in Burlington in 1926, served in Japan in World War II, and later joined the Air Force to serve in the Korean War. He also served as a Burlington police officer before moving in 1952 to his wife’s hometown of Ludlow, where he lived and worked for the next 68 years. Kirkbride’s daughter Deborah Khiel said he brought a military precision to everything he did.

Deborah Khiel: I remember he used to wash my hair when I was a little kid. I don’t know why, I guess mom just used to have dad wash our hair in the sink when we needed to wash it. He would use the tips of his fingers, and we’d be squeaky clean. 

He was so proud of his lawn. Oh my god, it was a golf course. He was snow blowing up until this winter. I was up there every month and he was out on a snow blower. He’d do everybody else’s yard and ours. 

He ironed his undershirts. Everything had to be pressed and perfect. He took great pride. He was colorblind, but he did a heck of a good job of coordinating his socks and pants and shirts and ties.

His dad passed away when he was 3; he really didn’t know his dad. His dad was a jeweler in Burlington. He had aunts and uncles who took him under their wings. I know one of his aunts had a hat shop, and he used to clean it. 

Attention to detail. Meticulous record keeping. Right to the penny, he would balance his checkbook. The notes he would take, oh my god. He went to the Town Meeting in Ludlow two weeks before he passed. And I happened to find the minutes — you know, the booklet about what they’re going to talk about. He had made notes in the margin, questions to ask, or things that people said during the meeting. It was quite the record. 

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Elizabeth LaBombard, 95, lifelong Burlingtonian

Betty Labombard
Elizabeth “Betty” LaBombard, 95, died at Burlington Health and Rehab on March 19. Courtesy Holly Barrett-Willard.

Elizabeth LaBombard was “Aunt Bets” to many of her family members. A lifelong Burlingtonian, she was married to Albert LaBombard for 50 years and worked as a waitress at the Woolworth’s department store from her youth until she was 65. Holly Barrett-Willard, Elizabeth’s great-niece, said a hysterectomy at age 20 left Elizabeth unable to have children, so she and her husband treated their nieces and nephews as their own.

Holly Barrett-Willard: When my daughter was born, they came out and helped me every day. She was colicky, and I didn’t sleep, and she would come out and help with her. Because they couldn’t have children, she would call her her baby — “this is our baby.” Not that she didn’t love every other grandchild, but she was the firstborn. They spent a lot of time with her. 

They just loved kids, you know? And it was sad that she couldn’t have any of her own. She never talked about it. But she always had that motherly instinct — very caring, very soft spoken. 

Susan LaBombard (Elizabeth’s niece, Holly’s mother): I think it affected her in a big way. I think that’s why she always gave a lot to kids. At Christmastime, her and my uncle always made sure that there were gifts at church, under the tree, for children. And she always gave food for families that had children, like for the food shelf.

She married my husband’s uncle. They met when my husband and I got married. They were always together. Always, always, always together. Where you saw one, you saw the other. That’s just the way it was. 

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