Shawn Vestal: Beyond the COVID-19 statistics, stories of the lives they lived as Spokane County marks 1,000 deaths
Nov. 14, 2021 Updated Sun., Nov. 14, 2021 at 1:28 p.m.
“He never wanted to be a statistic.”
That’s what Tom Brown’s sister said as she talked about the brother she lost in August to COVID-19. And it’s true, of course, that Tom Brown and all the hundreds and hundreds of people who have perished during this pandemic are more than a statistic – every single one lived a fuller, richer existence than can be ever be captured by one mark on a tally board.
Last week, Spokane County recorded another miserable milestone in the pandemic – surpassing 1,000 lives lost. To be exact, it is 1,034 as of Friday. Statewide, Washington is approaching 9,000 deaths, and Idaho is nearing 4,000. Nationally, we’ve exceeded 750,000.
The statistics are sobering. But they’re even more so when you try to recognize them as individual lives. Today we share the stories of six people in our region who died of COVID-19 in the past year, a small representation of a huge human toll.
Barbara Faye Kile, 70
They called her the Martha Stewart of the Palouse.
For decades, Barbara Kile hosted elegant Victorian luncheons and teas at her home in St. John, where she and her husband farmed and raised a family. People came from all over the region to enjoy the events she staged through her business, “Touch of Elegance,” which were marked by her attention to detail and lavish spreads of scones, refined sandwiches and desserts.
“She creates this wonderful ambience,” former Colfax Mayor Carol Stueckle told The Spokesman-Review in a 1998 feature on Kile. “It’s not just a lovely place to have lunch, it’s an afternoon of atmosphere and entertainment. It is all absolutely lovely.”
A native of Ontario, Oregon, Kile swore as a young woman that she’d never marry a farmer. She met her future husband, Jim Kile, when he was working as a banker in Nyssa, Oregon, and a friend set them up.
Whenever people asked them how they met, Jim said, “I always said it was in a bar, but she said it was a very nice bar.”
Shortly after they were married in 1975, Jim’s father developed health problems and he had to return to the family farm in St. John, where they stayed. Barb married a farmer after all.
Developing a business out of the family home made sense for several reasons, including the fact that she was raising a daughter, Kim, and a son, Ryan, in the 1980s and ’90s. She started with a floral business and grew from there.
“She didn’t want a job out of the home, but she wanted to stay busy,” Jim said. “She just knew so many people and connected with so many. She was just so loving and caring and gracious.”
Ordinarily, at this time of year, the Christmas decorations would already be up at the Kile home.
“She started decorating the house right after Halloween,” Jim said. “We never knew when Christmas started or ended. It was just Christmas for two months.”
Barb celebrated her 70th birthday in July with a surprise party at her daughter’s home in Spokane Valley.
“They really surprised us,” Jim said. “They didn’t even tell me because they thought I’d blab it.”
Because she had severe allergies, and had adverse reactions to medicines in the past, she was leery of taking the vaccine after talking about it with her doctor. Jim emphasized she was not against vaccinations, and she pushed him to get his, which he did.
In September, Jim contracted a breakthrough COVID-19 case, and Barb soon was infected as well. Jim did not get very ill, but Barb had to be hospitalized Oct. 1. She eventually was placed on a ventilator; Jim said her family got to speak to her a final time before she was placed on the machine, but continued to be able to visit – within the safety protocols.
“It was pretty bad,” he said. “Horrible.”
He and their kids were with her when she died Oct. 22.
Thomas J.D. Brown, 56
Tom Brown learned to play the drums at age 4, and he was still playing them in his 50s – jamming with musician friends at Cheap Shots bar in Spokane Valley. His love of playing music was a hallmark of his personality, along with his robust sense of humor and love of people.
“Tom was incredibly kind and could put anybody at ease in moments,” is how his obituary put it. “You’d be in stitches from giggling because of his antics, jokes, and teasing.”
He was well-suited for his career as a cab driver in Spokane, which he did for many years. His sister, Erin Luckman, said she sometimes urged him to do something else, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
“He was a cab driver, and he absolutely loved it,” she said. “He loved people. He liked telling stories. He loved making friends.”
He had a longtime partner, Rochelle Brown, and was a stepfather to her two daughters. He also had a daughter, Bryana – whom he called his Angel Face.
Luckman, who lives in the Tri-Cities, began visiting her brother in Spokane regularly the past year and a half – driving up for dinner and drinks on Friday nights. In July, he fell ill and was sick for a couple of weeks without being treated, she said.
“He was stubborn,” she said. “He didn’t want to do the masking, didn’t want to do the shot. … We both had our own feelings about the shot.”
Luckman found him feverish and unresponsive in his home on July 16, and he was hospitalized. His family was with him in the end. He died of a combination of respiratory failure, COVID pneumonia and a bacterial infection on Aug. 6, five days after he turned 56.
“He never wanted to be a statistic,” Luckman said.
Robert Randall Merrill, 79
The day Randy Merrill found out he had COVID-19, he was up on the roof cleaning out the gutters.
That was typical for Randy, who had continued doing things into his 70s that many people might have given up.
“He was a determined person,” said Sylvia Merrill, Randy’s wife of 58 years. “He loved to snow-ski, and every year he broke something. … He broke legs and ribs. He didn’t break any arms.
Breaking his pelvic bone finally put an end to his skiing.
“That’s how determined he was,” Sylvia said.
Born in Forth Worth, Texas, Randy moved to Spokane around age 12. He graduated from Central Valley High, and served in the National Guard while attending Washington State. He was a freshman at WSU when he met Sylvia on a blind date.
As she tells it, it was an inauspicious start to their relationship – she accidentally dumped baked beans in her lap at a church social. But he called her for another date, and they were married in 1963.
He worked in different jobs until he started his own business, RR Merrill Constructions, designing and building homes and commercial buildings.
“That really was what he always desired, to be his own boss,” Sylvia said.
They raised two kids and traveled all over the world, including to Hawaii, Mexico and many other places. Sylvia, who still works as a travel agent from home, said their favorite spot was Fiji, largely because they loved the people there.
He and Sylvia were both vaccinated, but she came down with a breakthrough case in late September. Randy tested positive shortly thereafter. One night, he became feverish and disoriented from the illness and had to be taken to the hospital.
His family was able to see him in person just once before he died Oct. 5.
Mary Ann Chandler, 86
After graduating from Lewis and Clark High School and Washington State University, Mary Ann “Dee Dee” Chandler took a job as a flight attendant for United Airlines.
Even though her main career would be in interior design, those early days as a “stew” were the source of many stories for friends and family. In retirement, when she was asked what she’d done for work, she always started by mentioning her time working on flights.
“This first job helped shape the remainder of Dee Dee’s life, as family and friends saw Dee Dee ‘serve and support’ others in everything she did going forward,” her obituary said.
She worked for more than 30 years as an interior designer for several furniture stores in Spokane, including Barclay Brown and Ethan Allan. In 1974, she married Carl Chandler, a colonel in the Army and National Guard.
Rocky Chandler was 9 at the time, and he recalls his father sending him and Dee Dee off to the World’s Fair in Spokane for the day to get to know each other beforehand. He said that Dee Dee’s kindness and care to him and his brother helped the family navigate the sometimes difficult dynamics that can follow divorce.
“She has been my stepmother since I was 9, so after that many years … the line between mother and stepmother essentially dissolves,” Rocky wrote in a Facebook post. “Dee Dee was fun, positive, kind to all and engaged in our school, sports and business activities over the years.”
She loved having large family gatherings in their big backyard and around the pool. Even in later years, he said, she would host holidays that harmoniously included mom, dad and stepmom.
“That’s who she was – she was welcoming to everybody,” Rocky said. “She was all about family.”
She had moved to an assisted living home on the West Side in 2009, to be near Rocky and his wife, Sharon. They moved back to Spokane a few years ago, and she returned as well in 2020, to an assisted living facility on the South Hill.
In a tragic irony of timing, she fell ill in December, as the first vaccinations were being planned and distribution was beginning.
“The vaccine was almost within reach,” Rocky said. “She missed that opportunity.”
She was hospitalized at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, where she received wonderful care, Rocky said.
“The people at Sacred Heart were absolutely amazing,” he said. “They were absolute rock stars.”
Dee Dee’s family members were able to spend her final hours with her, in protective gear at her bedside. She died on New Year’s Day, 2021.
Delena Hainline, 43, and Jeffrey Dale Hainline, 56
They met in Hunters, where Jeff Hainline was a history teacher and Delena had graduated from Columbia High School. They married four days before Christmas in 1996.
Jeff had grown up in Spokane, attending Catholic schools and playing baseball. He attended Gonzaga University on a baseball scholarship, and became the school’s all-time home run leader.
“You’d just be in awe of the way he could make balls fly,” said a GU teammate, Chris Spring, in August. “In batting practice, we’d start counting when he hit consecutive balls over the fence. One time, it got to nine and by that time we were laughing at how ridiculous that was. Then 10 and 11, and we’re on the ground. On No. 15, he hits a laser that hits the fence – just didn’t get under it enough.”
He went on to be drafted by the Texas Rangers, but his pro career was short-lived following a knee injury.
One of the most common words used to describe Jeff – despite his home-run prowess – was “gentle.”
“Jeff was a very giving person,” said his sister, Chris Millspaugh. “He was a gentle soul.”
In addition to teaching, he coached a variety of teams, and he always tried to balance teaching kids how to play – and encouraging them to have fun, she said.
Delena Schurger was born in Yakima, the seventh of 10 children, and spent most of her childhood in Hunters. She also loved sports, including basketball, volleyball and softball. Jeff converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when they married, and they raised two children.
Delena’s large family was ideal for Jeff, his sister said, because he loved to be around people.
“A large family was just the perfect scenario for him,” she said.
Delena worked in various jobs, always keeping busy. She worked the last seven years as a bookkeeper for Century 21 Beutler & Associates in Spokane.
“You could not ask for a sweeter individual,” Millspaugh said.
Jeff worked for the Kalispell Tribe in various capacities in recent years.
They apparently caught COVID at a family gathering in July. Jeff, who had dealt with a variety of health issues, had been vaccinated, and Delena had not, Millspaugh said. Their illnesses took hold quickly. Delena was hospitalized on a Saturday; Jeff was hospitalized the following day, and he never regained consciousness.
She died Aug. 10. Jeff followed two days later.
They left behind two kids, Thomas Dalen, 23, and Carly Jayne, 18.
“They had great kids,” Millspaugh said. “They’re making it through. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure they’re just fine.”
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