Evansville remembers couple lost to COVID
Derrell and Pat Nitz died a week apart over New Year's and will have their memorial service this week.
Derrell Nitz knew that for him, COVID was no joking matter. The Evansville man's age and health were against him.
“I’m 85, with COPD," his daughter, Julie Carlson, recalled him saying. "If I get this, this is probably a death sentence to me."
Still, it was a shock when he was diagnosed with COVID shortly after Christmas and died soon after, and even more stunning when his wife of 60 years, Pat, 81, who had just played the organ for Christmas Eve church, also contracted the virus and died a week after him.
"Their deaths so close together of COVID, that’s the type of stuff you read about in the national news, but that you never think is going to happen to you or in your community,” Carlson said.
Carlson and her family will finally get to hold the memorial service for Derrell and Pat on Friday, July 16, at Faith Lutheran Church, which they had attended for many years. Like many services, theirs was delayed because of the pandemic.
The two were well-known in Evansville, a small, close-knit community where they moved in 1963. They lived in town, and Derrell had co-owned the lumber yard and was known for handing quarters to kids who accompanied their parents there. Pat played organ for church and handled the books for the Evansville Historical Foundation. Derrell had served as a volunteer firefighter and Pat had led Bible studies. She was the treasurer for several other organizations, and at the time of her death, she was mindful of her year-end fiscal responsibilities, giving her daughter instructions.
“Did you make sure so-and-so got the church books," Carlson said. "She was dedicated and aware of her responsibility. She was a servant to the end.”
Evansville is home to about 600 people, and when COVID arrived, reaction was mixed. There were some who exercised caution, and others who felt it was either a hoax or not serious enough to shut down the schools and restaurants. Just about everyone you talk to had the virus or knew someone who did.
Many compared it to the flu, and only wore a mask when they had to, said Marissa Henneman, 26, who works at Backroads Steakhouse. "I know a lot of people who were like, 'I'm not wearing a mask.'"
The loss of Derrell and Pat did hit people hard, she said, as many people knew them. Derrell stayed home because of his health issues, but Pat was often running errands in town.
"Pat was always just around," Henneman said. "She'd come in here and get take-out food, and I'd see her at the post office."
Cassandra Englund, a cashier at one of the gas stations in town, said she felt attitudes toward COVID changed some after Derrell and Pat died. Her own did, at least.
"I couldn't believe it," she said. "It was actually kind of a shock because they were very careful in what they did."
Her mother got COVID and she had to quarantine for 10 days, which she said was a lonely time, although she never got sick. Other relatives also got COVID.
"I thought it was just another strain of the flu and our bodies would fight it off," she said.
Now, she's less certain about it.
"Even if you think you're healthy, it could hit you," she said.
There remains plenty of skepticism around town about COVID and vaccinations, and some cite troubling news reports about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine being linked to Guillain-Barre syndrome. Yet they also care about the Nitzes and their daughter, who is a pastor, and want to support her.
And Carlson herself finds much to be thankful for, even amid the loss of her parents. She is thankful that neither had to live without the other. She's thankful that they didn't have to spend years in a nursing home, as her mother's mother did. Her parents died at Alomere Health, and she's thankful that the staff there showed her parents so much compassion. She's thankful for the familiar faces of the first responders on that snowy night her dad went to the hospital, and how they even shoveled the driveway. And she's thankful that her family got a chance to visit each other via Zoom for four hours, and that her dad was in good spirits before his heart failed him.
They were each able to make their own medical decisions, and each turned down a ventilator.
“They were so strong in their faith,” Carlson said. “I think all of us were comfortable, that this is in God’s hands, God’s timing. I don’t think either of them were afraid to die, which is important.”
Meanwhile, the Evansville organizations Pat worked with are now trying to get up to speed on all the bookwork she once handled.
"Big shoes to fill, as a lot of knowledge died with her," noted her friend, Marlys Englund, who worked with Pat at the historical foundation.
The visitation is set for Thursday, July 15, from 4-7 p.m., with a prayer service at 6:30 p.m., at Glende-Nilson Funeral Home in Evansville. A memorial service will take place at 11 a.m. Friday, July 16, at Faith Lutheran Church in Evansville. Burial will be in Mound Grove Cemetery.