OMAHA — They weren’t a flashy, demonstrative couple.
Fred Whitesel wasn’t one for sonnets or flowers or lavish gifts of jewelry. But he and wife Judy had a strong, steady connection, a marriage that lasted 60 years, even as Fred, 83, became more frail and dementia gripped Judy, 81.
“Their love has made me reflect on what love is,” daughter-in-law Phylis Whitesel said. “It doesn’t have to be all that” — the grand gestures — “to make it a bond forever.”
So their family has decided to consider it a blessing that the couple died just hours apart on Monday.
Judy first, then Fred almost 12 hours later.
Both had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“In our hearts and in our minds, we know they’re in a better place, and we’re at peace with that,” said Steven Whitesel, their son.
Both were residents of the Life Care Center of Elkhorn, the Omaha nursing home battling a severe coronavirus outbreak. Six residents there have died, including Fred and Judy Whitesel, and 57 have tested positive for the coronavirus.
The couple tested positive about a week ago but initially didn’t have any symptoms.
But the coronavirus can be unpredictable: by Friday morning, Judy Whitesel had taken a turn for the worse and was admitted to the hospital.
“It sounds like with this COVID, it just changes by the hour,” Phylis Whitesel said.
Steven Whitesel was wary of putting his elderly mother on a ventilator — he didn’t want to prolong her suffering. She died Monday morning.
Back at the nursing home, Fred was told that his wife died, but his son wasn’t sure how much he actually grasped.
Hours later, another phone call: Now Fred was declining rapidly and headed to the emergency room. He died that evening. The couple would have celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary in September.
Steven and Phylis Whitesel said they don’t blame the nursing home, where the couple received clean sheets, good food and manicures for Judy during their three-year stay.
“There’s so much about this virus that’s unknown,” Phylis Whitesel said. “I just really don’t think it’s fair to put blame on anyone. God knew it was their time.”
And past generations of the Whitesel family have weathered this kind of loss before. A century ago, Fred Whitesel’s grandfather died during the Spanish flu pandemic.
Fred Whitesel was born in Waterloo in 1936, and Judy Paasch was born in Omaha in 1939. They married in 1959 — a black-and-white photo from their wedding day shows Judy beaming — and spent most of their lives in the Millard and Elkhorn areas.
Fred, always handy, worked as a mechanic, in construction and for almost 50 years as a truck driver. Judy worked at the Richman-Gordman department store in the 1970s and ‘80s and then stayed home to raise Steven and his sister, Vicki, who died in 1996.
They had their own hobbies — Fred liked to tinker, Judy liked to craft — but shared a love of camping and their three grandchildren, Haley, Kayla and Noah.
Even as the coronavirus pandemic has rocked so many lives — including theirs — friends, family and the staff at the hospital and nursing home have been so kind, Steven and Phylis Whitesel said.
A small graveside service will be held, and in lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Open Door Mission.