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Couple Wed 70 Years Died Together, From COVID-19

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For more than a year, we have shared stories about people who have died of COVID-19 in the U.S. Today, the story of an Ohio couple who were childhood sweethearts.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

They were Dick and Shirley Meek. Last December, the Meeks celebrated 70 years of marriage. Their grandson, Jesse Fischer, says the pandemic forced them to revise their plans for that milestone.

JESSE FISCHER: There was planned to be a big 70th anniversary celebration and, a year prior, had started planning that. And then, of course, like the rest of the world, you know, everything had to change.

CHANG: Fischer remembers his grandfather as a gifted carpenter who built the home in which he and Shirley raised their five children. Fischer says Dick Meek was always ready to answer your questions and ask his own.

FISCHER: If it's something that he wanted to know more about, he loved to pick your brain.

SHAPIRO: And Shirley, Jesse Fischer's grandmother, made a real impression on him as a kid because of the job she held at Burger Chef for 25 years.

FISCHER: It was always exciting to go get fast food somewhere when you're a kid, but then to go in and have your grandma give that to you, that was even better.

SHAPIRO: Dick and Shirley Meek grew up about a mile and a half from each other in east central Ohio. They still lived in the area but traveled widely. In later years, they spent winters in Florida, welcoming vacationing family and trekking through theme parks.

CHANG: The Meeks had infrequent, minor illnesses but always made quick recoveries. This winter, they told their grown children, we think we're getting colds. But then they tested positive for COVID-19. Still, given what happened before, the family was optimistic.

FISCHER: We were worried, but at the same time, in the back of your mind, it's like, oh, it'll be like it always is with them.

SHAPIRO: On January 8, Dick and Shirley were admitted to a Columbus, Ohio, hospital. Because of COVID restrictions, they were in separate rooms and a floor apart.

CHANG: The family urged the staff to put Dick and Shirley together, and they did.

SHAPIRO: As they were dying, the staff played them a song Dick Meek had requested.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA")

JOHN DENVER: (Singing) Like a flower that has blossomed in the dry and barren sand...

CHANG: As John Denver sang "When The River Meets The Sea," Dick and Shirley held hands. Shirley's head rested on Dick's shoulder. They died within minutes of each other.

FISCHER: They were together so much throughout their marriage, throughout their lives together that the idea of one of them surviving without the other - almost a harder thought than losing them both.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA")

DENVER: (Singing) When the river meets the sea.

FISCHER: It's a small solace for us, but I think if you ask them, they probably wouldn't have had it any other way.

SHAPIRO: Dick and Shirley Meek died from COVID-19 on January 16. Dick Meek would have turned 90 three days later, and Shirley Meek was almost 88.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA")

DENVER: (Singing) Truth and justice will be done. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.