Kerry Wiltzius ”always wanted to keep moving,” her youngest daughter, Kati Norman, said Wednesday.
And on June 26, she was doing exactly that – moving, training for a triathlon – when she was struck in an accident that proved fatal on Tuesday, when she was taken off life support and died at age 65.
Wiltzius started training for her first triathlon nine years ago. And she’d been looking forward to the Tiger Tri this summer in Colville, where she was expecting to swim 1½ kilometers, bike 40 kilometers and finally run 10 kilometers on top of it all.
Wiltzius biked every morning past the wheat fields and farms surrounding her home on Peone Prairie, near Mead. Every morning, she pushed herself a little farther.
“That’s just who she was,” Norman said.
Norman has fond memories of riding around the Wiltzius family farm in a beat-up old truck when she was a little girl, checking on wheat fields with her mom. The family quit farming after Wiltzius’ husband of 43 years, Mike, suffered a back injury, but she didn’t quit moving then.
Wiltzius dedicated the next 25 years of her life to countless nonprofit causes. If there was a worthy cause in need of help in Spokane, chances are she had pitched in over the years. She worked for Friends of Manito, Goodwill, the Spokane Humane Society and, most recently, the Northeast Community Center. When she got off work, she could often be found volunteering with the Girl Scouts or Kairos, a ministry for incarcerated women.
In the early morning of June 26, Wiltzius was biking around the prairies as she always did. She was wearing a bright orange visibility vest and a helmet, Norman said, because she would have wanted her family to do the same. Wiltzius was going east on state Highway 206, near the intersection with Halliday Lane, when a tow truck, the driver of which is suspected to have been under the influence of cannabis, struck her from behind.
Wiltzius was transported by helicopter to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center with extensive injuries, including a broken pelvis, a collapsed lung and a brain bleed.
On Sunday, doctors told her family she was brain dead. Wiltzius was taken off life support on Tuesday, and she died surrounded by family around 1 p.m.
The close-knit Wiltzius family spent her last days by her bedside. Norman said COVID-19 restrictions made it difficult to get her mother’s countless friends and loved ones into the hospital to see her, but they put up a good fight because “we have enough of our mom in us.” Though Wiltzius had been unconscious since the accident, Norman talked to her as much as she could.
“She always loved to be around people,” Norman said. “We were just doing what she would have done.”
Mary Savage, philanthropy officer for Providence Health Care Foundation, worked alongside Wiltzius in the nonprofit sector for two decades. They were both active in the Spokane chapter of Executive Women International, and their paths had crossed many times during fundraisers and community events throughout the 22 years Savage knew Wiltzius.
Savage described Wiltzius as an unflappable spirit, the kind of volunteer who willingly took on work without being asked. If you trusted Kerry with a project, Savage said, you knew it would get done right.
“She truly had the heart of a servant,” Savage said. “She’s left an immense void in the community now that she’s gone.”
Norman said her parents’ home on the prairie was always the go-to gathering place for the entire extended family. The door was always open, but Wiltzius would tell you she was a terrible host. She was always too busy chatting to set out plates and pour drinks.
She loved gardening, and had been using the stay-home order to catch up on revamping her flower beds, Norman said. Before she started training for triathlons, Wiltzius had been a dog-sledder, devoted to her pack of malamutes, Nelson said.
Wiltzius had been planning to retire this winter and was looking forward to spending more time with her four grandkids. One of her three daughters, Norman’s older sister, lived on Highway 206 just a few miles from the family home, and Wiltzius would often bike past the house and wave while she trained in the mornings.
Norman said her sister had seen their mom whiz by just a few minutes before the accident. With the Tiger Tri coming up soon, Wiltzius was taking a longer route that morning to prepare.
The driver of the tow truck that hit Wiltzius, Jonathon Ryser, has been charged with vehicular assault. He was booked into Spokane County Jail after the incident, and was released on his own recognizance shortly thereafter. At his first court appearance on Tuesday, Ryser declined to speak to The Spokesman-Review.
According to court documents, Ryser, 46, told Washington State Patrol troopers at the scene that he had earlier that morning used a marijuana vape pen, which was in the tow truck with him.
Officers found several indicators of intoxication, but Ryser declined to provide a blood sample for testing.
Ryser was employed by Sunset Towing in Coeur d’Alene at the time of the accident. Owner Rick Anderson said Wednesday Ryser was no longer employed with the company.
In January 2019, Ryser’s driver’s license was suspended after he was booked in Kootenai County for driving under the influence. According to court documents, an Idaho State Police trooper pulled Ryser over after a witness reported his tow truck driving erratically. A police drug recognition expert visually determined Ryser to be under the influence of a stimulant.
According to Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh, Ryser was unable to produce urine to be tested at the time of his arrest, which was deemed a refusal.
He voluntarily provided urine for a test the next morning, which came back negative.
McHugh said Ryser’s license suspension was in effect until the case was resolved in February 2019, at which time his driving privileges were reinstated.
Had the ruling stood, Ryser’s license would have been suspended for a year, and he would have been required to use an ignition interlock device for one year .
Ryser had been employed with Sunset Towing at the time of his suspension, according to court documents, but Anderson declined to comment on the incident.
Norman said Ryser is the “furthest thing” from her mind right now. The family is planning a memorial service for Wiltzius at the church she attended every Sunday for years, St. Patrick Catholic Church in Hillyard.
When Norman and her sisters went to write down the causes their mom had devoted herself to for her obituary, Norman said the list quickly became overwhelming. Funeral plans would be tricky because COVID-19 would make it hard to accommodate the hundreds of people whose lives Wiltzius touched, Norman said.
The weekend before the accident, Norman, her two children and Wiltzius took a trip to their family cabin near Colville. Wiltzius’ parents built it years ago, and Norman said the place was full of memories from decades of weekend trips. The tradition was to make huckleberry pancakes on mornings at the cabin, using fresh huckleberries from the surrounding forest. Last week, the berries weren’t in season yet, so plain pancakes sufficed.
“And plain pancakes were just fine,” Norman said. “Just perfect.”
As they packed their things out of the cabin to go home, Wiltzius realized she’d locked the car keys in the house behind them. Norman said her kids started to panic until Nana’s unflappable confidence kicked in, and Wiltzius reassured them she’d broken into the place many times. Ten minutes later, she’d wedged herself through the tiny bathroom window and retrieved the keys, and the kids were stunned.
That’s who she was, Norman said. But no matter how many other people Wiltzius took care of, she was sure to remind others to take care, too.
“She always reminded me, ‘You take care of YOU,’ with the ‘you’ all in big capital letters,” Norman said “If things are too scary, take it day by day, or hour by hour, or minute by minute if you need to.
“I’ve had her in my head telling me that for the last few days now.”
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