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Shawn Vestal: A COVID-19 death, turned into both a memorial and a mask campaign

When Joe Hodl died of COVID-19 in August, his wife, Cheri, was left grief-stricken and bereft – and wondering whether there was anything she could do to help fight the virus.

His passing had come with brutal speed. The 64-year-old Post Falls man contracted the disease, was hospitalized and died in mere days. Just like that, Cheri lost her husband of 38 years, a close companion since they were both growing up in Spokane in the 1960s.

“When he passed away, you have the thoughts of, I wish I could do something with this disease that would help, but I have no idea what that could be,” she said. “How can I educate people about this being real and being hard?”

Joe’s doctor, Geoff Emry, had an idea. What if they made masks memorializing Joe? That might help encourage mask-wearing in a way that skirted political conflict and put the focus on paying tribute to someone who was well-known and well-loved.

“We just thought that’s a way to support him, but also pass that message along,” said Emry, who has a family practice in Coeur d’Alene and who considered Joe Hodl a friend as well as a patient.

“If we can get one more person to wear a mask who maybe wouldn’t have otherwise, that is the goal,” he said.

When she heard that idea, Cheri said, “That’s it!”

Joe Hodl, who retired in March after a career working in industrial electricity, had been paying close attention to the pandemic for months before he fell ill – studying the 1918 flu epidemic and following the news. For him, wearing a mask was a simple matter of doing the responsible, smart thing.

“He always felt that if everybody wore their masks, this would go away faster,” Cheri said.

Joe would sometimes encounter objections from people who said they didn’t like masks because you can’t see people’s smiles. He would respond that you can see their smile in their eyes, she said. When it came time to design the mask that would memorialize Joe, it was clear that a smile should be a part of the design.

Now hundreds of people in and around Post Falls are wearing Smile-4Joe masks. Cheri and Emry held a drive-through mask giveaway in December at Post Falls High School. Cheri works at the school keeping the books, and Joe was a long-time booster and former president of the boosters club.

Because Cheri has decided to wait until pandemic precautions ease up to hold a funeral, the event at the school took on the quality of a memorial. “I got to see how many people really cared about him,” she said.

Joe was known as a gregarious man with a prominent sense of humor, and – in addition to the smile – the masks have the words “Friend,” “Supporter,” and “Jokester” on them.

“He had a very good sense of humor,” Emry said. “He was very funny, very sharp-witted, kind of a dark humor, honestly. Kind of a smart aleck.”

At the mask giveaway and through a GoFundMe account, they raised enough money to buy 2,000 more masks, which they will distribute free around the region.

Joe Hodl III grew up in Spokane, attending St. Peter’s Catholic School, Gonzaga Prep and Washington State University. He worked for his father, Joseph Hodl Jr., at H&N Electric in Spokane for 20 years, ran his own business in Post Falls for a few years, and then – following a massive heart attack and bypass surgery – he worked at Cascade Machinery and Electric in Spokane. He retired in March.

He and Cheri have three children and three grandchildren.

Cheri was infected with the coronavirus in early August, and Joe soon after. She had mostly mild symptoms, similar to a sinus infection, but Joe began to quickly have difficulty breathing, and was hospitalized after a fall at home. The virus spread rapidly to his lungs, and he was placed on a respirator for less than a week before he died. Cheri was able to see him one final time before he was taken off the respirator on Aug. 17.

“It was so fast – it was almost like someone getting in a car accident,” Cheri said. “I want people to know it’s very serious and very real.”

That’s an important goal as well for Emry, who has cared for both of the Hodls. Joe is the second patient of his to die of COVID, and one of around a dozen who have been hospitalized. He and others are seeing people suffer and die from the disease regularly, and are seeing the hospital system overwhelmed – and yet they often encounter skepticism and denial about the realities of the disease and the effective ways to limit its spread.

“It’s a difficult time, and it can be frustrating for a lot of people who work in health care who are seeing it on a daily basis,” Emry said.

The Smile-4Joe campaign is an attempt to use good will and the memory of a good man to encourage mask-wearing. Hundreds of smiles for Joe are already on faces across the region, and hundreds more are on the way.

Cheri’s not sure how they’re going to distribute them yet, but she’s sure of this: “We’re going to keep handing out more masks.”

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