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LIVES REMEMBERED: Teacher, ex-mayor among Arkansas' covid taken

Arkansas’ pandemic deaths surpass total killed in Pearl Harbor or 9/11 by ERIC BESSON AND LISA HAMMERSLY ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE | December 20, 2020 at 9:49 a.m.
Among the lives lost to the coronavirus in Arkansas in September 2020 were (top row, from left) Julius Phillips, Geraldine Buckingham, Linda Mays, George Yarbrough, Peggy Simpson, Decenda Terry, (bottom row, from left) Charles “Dickie” Richard Kennemore, James Modisette, Walter and Billie Thayer, and Sgt. J.L. “Buck” Dancy.

A 68-year-old nurse. A 62-year-old police sergeant.

A couple in their early 90s, married more than 70 years, who died 13 days apart.

Nine months into the covid-19 pandemic, Arkansas has lost nearly 3,200 people to the disease caused by the new coronavirus. That’s more fatalities than the nation suffered at Pearl Harbor or in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As grim as the numbers are, they can’t capture the pain of individual lives lost: the substitute teacher, the nursing home worker, the retired Walmart store employee, the great-grandmother of eight, the longtime mayor.

This Arkansas Democrat-Gazette occasional series, “Lives Remembered,” tells a few of their stories through interviews with family members, coroners’ reports, obituaries and other sources. Each captures in some way the cruelty of a virus that today records ever higher numbers of deaths and hospitalizations.

Linda Cullum, a physical therapist assistant at Conway Regional Medical Center, has watched too many patients slip away because of covid-19, including her seemingly healthy mother-in-law, Peggy Simpson.

Cullum has known of 90-year-olds who were placed on ventilators and recovered, she said. Simpson was just 73. “This virus picks and chooses. You just never know.”

Julius Phillips, 65, Magnolia, died Nov. 1. Although he worked more than 30 years for the former AP&L power company (now Entergy Arkansas) and then for the Magnolia Public School District, his true calling was as a devoted husband and father, and as a Baptist pastor, according to daughter LaToya Phillips-McBride.

[LIVES REMEMBERED: Read more stories of Arkansans who have died of covid-19 » arkansasonline.com/livesremembered/]

He accepted his first south Arkansas pastor’s post in 1988, according to his obituary. Later he led churches in Camden and Waterloo before moving to St. Paul Baptist Church in Taylor.

Phillips earned several degrees in religion, including a bachelor’s and two masters from United Theological Seminary and Bible College in El Dorado and Monroe, La., according to his obituary. He received his doctorate degree in ministry from Anderson-ville Theological Seminary in Camilla, Ga.

“He was hardworking, he was genuine, he loved everybody,” said his daughter. “Not only did he preach about being called to the ministry, he lived it.”

Phillips, his wife who he called “Miss Mable,” both daughters and other family members began feeling ill about the same time in late October. Phillips-McBride remembers feeling so sick that she could barely walk around her house.

Her father was too ill to preach on the last Sunday in October. Mable Phillips began driving him and other family members to a nearby hospital. He was given a chest X-ray later that week and was supposed to follow up with his regular doctor on Nov. 2.

The day before that appointment, he was so weak that his wife asked if she should call an ambulance or a doctor.

He told her: “No, they don’t know how to treat this covid,” his daughter said. A short time later, Mable Phillips discovered that he had stopped breathing. A family member and emergency technicians tried CPR without success.

James Modisette, 88, Fayetteville, Nov. 3. The longtime University of Arkansas, Fayetteville accounting department professor and chairman started his working life in oil fields and as an office manager on construction jobs in Arkansas and Louisiana.

A U.S. Army veteran, he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees from Southern Arkansas University, the University of Mississippi and Louisiana State University, according a university news release.

In 1963, in his early 30s and armed with a new Ph.D., Modisette landed a teaching job in the UA accounting department. On a trip to Europe that summer, he met and courted his future wife, Diane.

When he retired more than 30 years later, Modisette counted among his students three Dillard sons (Bill, Alex and Mike), Rob Walton and top executives of J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Walton Enterprises, Tyson Foods and other companies, according to the news release by the UA Sam M. Walton College of Business.

Chairman of the accounting department from 1971-85, Modisette trained his students to succeed in the world’s biggest accounting firms, his wife said. A 2001 article in “Talk Business & Politics” dubbed him Arkansas’ “Business Education Godfather.”

“Dr. Modisette’s 33 years of service to the university instrumentally impacted the accounting profession in Arkansas,” Gary Peters, current chairman of the business school’s accounting department, said in the UA news release.

Modisette was in recovering from surgery and an infection when he tested positive for covid-19, his wife said. For several days, he called their two children and friends often to tell them, “I’m fine.” Then the facility phoned to say he was being admitted to Washington Regional Medical Center, his wife said.

Diane Modisette worried about his lungs — the Army had discharged him as a young man because of lung issues.

He died on Election Day surrounded by family.

Decenda Terry, 70, El Dorado, Nov. 8. One of seven children, she grew up in the northern Louisiana town of Bernice, so small it boasted just one stoplight, according to her sister, Dorthy Johnson.

“Now they’ve even taken that one down,” Johnson said.

Their father’s bad health meant the family was so poor “we didn’t have really anything.” They counted on help from grandparents, aunts and uncles. Even so, the parents “made sure we were all educated. All of us went to college.”

Terry went to a business college in Monroe, La., and, in 1970, married a church pastor, the Rev. L.B. Terry. They had three children. She worked as a teacher’s aide at an El Dorado middle school, according to her obituary, then for more than 20 years at an El Dorado Walmart.

“She was best known for showering her loved ones, extended family, and all those who she embraced as a family with love and happiness,” her obituary said. “She enjoyed cooking and seeing the joy her food brought to others.”

In recent years as a diabetic in failing health, Terry moved to Courtyard Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in El Dorado. Johnson said no one knows how her sister contracted covid-19, though it could have happened at the facility or on trips to a dialysis center. Courtyard has reported at least 45 cases of covid-19 and eight deaths from the disease, according to the state Health Department.

She was admitted to Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock on Oct. 22 with “altered mental status” and tested positive for the virus, according to a Pulaski County coroner’s report.

George Yarbrough, 74, Conway, Nov. 10. Arkansas’ Substitute Teacher of the Year in 2019, Yarbrough hiked for exercise and enjoyment, and seemed to be in good health, according to his niece, Vanessa Gwin.

He graduated from what is now the University of Central Arkansas with a bachelor’s degree in biology and attended the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock for two years, according to his obituary. He then launched a nearly 30-year career in nursing home administration.

After retiring in 2003, he returned to Arkansas where “he discovered his true calling, substitute teaching in the elementary schools in Conway,” his obituary said.

Known to students as “Mr. Ron,” he was a popular substitute teacher for nearly two decades. Kelly Education, the company through which Conway Public Schools contracts substitutes, last year named him the state’s Substitute Teacher of the Year.

During summers when school was out, Yarbrough, who never married, traveled Arkansas “in an attempt to visit every state park. He managed a personal visit to 50 of the 52 state parks,” according to his obituary.

Gwin said her uncle tested positive for covid-19 on Oct. 24. Contact tracing indicated that he contracted the virus from friends, not at school, Gwin said.

Within a week, doctors placed him on a ventilator at Conway Regional Medical Center.

“For the most part, it was downhill,” she said. “It has all been really sad.”

“He was amazing,” she said of her uncle. “He was everyone’s biggest cheerleader. He never wished a bad thing on any person.”

Walter and Billie Thayer, 92 and 91, Little Rock, Nov. 13 and Nov. 26. High school sweethearts at Oklahoma City’s Central High School, they were married 72 years and had three children.

Late this year, Walter Thayer struggled with health issues, and spent time in and out of hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

Billie Thayer “was still vibrant,” said daughter Kay Ely, living at home, reading “four to five books a week” and staying awake until 12 or 1 because a particular book “was so good.”

A Korean War veteran, Walter Thayer worked for several years for business data firm Dunn and Bradstreet in Oklahoma City and Wichita, Kan.

The family moved to Arkansas in the mid-1960s when he joined the federal Small Business Administration. Billie Thayer worked in the accounting department at Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, where she and her husband were members for 57 years, and later at what is now CHI St. Vincent.

“She also was an accomplished seamstress who made clothes for her two daughters when they were young, and an excellent cook. The couple loved hosting family and friends for meals in their home on North Bryan. Recipe cards ‘from the kitchen of Billie Marie Thayer’ have now been passed down to two generations,” according to her obituary.

The Thayers, daughter Ely and her husband and sister all became ill with covid-19 about the same time, said Ely, who moved back to Little Rock in recent years to help care for her parents. Part of the pain in dealing with the virus, Ely said, is never knowing for sure where it was contracted.

Walter Thayer was admitted to St. Vincent in Little Rock on Nov. 2 with chronic kidney disease, according to a Pulaski County coroner’s report, and tested positive on Nov. 12 for covid-19.

Billie Thayer went to Baptist Health Medical Center on Nov. 21 with pneumonia because of covid-19, her coroner’s report shows.

“Walter preceded Billie in death by only two weeks,” her obituary noted, “and he no doubt rejoiced when she joined him in heaven shortly after his arrival.”

Peggy Simpson, 73, Conway, Nov. 13. Simpson worked part time at the Conway Human Development Center as a physical therapist assistant, said her daughter-in-law Linda Cullum. She was active, kept up her home on 5 acres and planned a knee replacement soon.

The mother of two spent 30 years as a beautician before going back to school for a GED and then on to college for an associate degree. Before the Human Development Center, she worked in nursing homes and home health.

“She served the patient community for years,” Cullum said. “When you went with her anywhere, people would know her. She was loved by her co-workers and family.”

Many of Simpson’s family members came down with covid-19 earlier this year. “I had it, and my husband,” said Cullum. “My daughter had it back in July but got over it just fine.”

When Simpson contracted the virus, probably at work, her daughter-in-law worried. But then Cullum felt better after thinking, “she’ll be OK because she’s healthy.”

After taking Simpson for an emergency room visit in early October, Cullum stayed with her overnight. “I could tell she wasn’t doing well,” she said.

Simpson was admitted to Conway Regional Medical Center on Oct. 7. She was on a ventilator from Oct. 10 until her death about a month later.

“They kept trying to wake her up, but her little lungs wouldn’t recover,” Cullum said.

A 45-year-old Springdale woman, Nov. 13. She had recovered from a life-threatening illness in 2013, and was known at work and among friends and family as outgoing, loving and energetic.

Time with family, friends and at church were her favorite pastimes, according to her obituary. “Going on family cruises and church camp trips with the children were at the top of her happy list. Oh, how she loved life,” the obituary said.

She tested positive for covid-19 on Nov. 3 and died of a lung infection brought on by the virus, according to a Benton County coroner’s report.

A 70-year-old Lonoke man, Nov. 20. He was a talented musician who could play any instrument, according to his obituary. The husband and father of three also enjoyed riding his Harley, making fiddles and fishing.

He was taken by ambulance from his home to Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock, where he died in the emergency room, according to a Pulaski County coroner’s report. His test for covid-19 was positive.

Linda Mays, 68, North Little Rock, Nov. 23. Mays won’t be here for Christmas and that’s a shame, because she shined around the holidays, her son said.

For nursing home residents she worked with, Mays wrangled hairdressers, cigarettes, gifts and even clothes. She brought them what they needed, the small joys of life that get taken for granted. Her generosity, though, was boundless.

One time a friend hit a rough patch around the holidays, so Mays gave her the Christmas tree and decorations from her own home. She delighted in making presents for children of family friends, many of whom called her Mama.

The mother of two “was like an angel on Earth, and she cared about people,” said son James Mays. She once asked for some of his old clothes for a nursing home resident with a similar build. “She’s going to make sure you’re all right.”

A licensed practical nurse, Mays worked for more than three decades in Arkansas nursing homes, often holding multiple jobs at once, her son said. She’d follow an eight-hour shift at one facility with an eight-hour shift at another. She also caught weekend work.

He believes his mother contracted covid-19 while working at Barrow Creek Health and Rehab in Little Rock. Mays battled the virus at home for roughly a week before collapsing on the way to the bathroom. Her son called 911, and she went into cardiac arrest upon arriving to the hospital, according to James and a coroner’s report.

James subsequently fought covid-19 himself. Afraid he might die in his sleep, he called 911 and was admitted at CHI St. Vincent with shortness of breath and a low oxygen level. He remained hospitalized for seven days, barely able to shake the fear that he could wind up requiring a ventilator. Aches and fatigue continue to dog him.

Son and mother had taken the virus seriously from the beginning, he said. They wore masks, washed hands and believed if they caught it, it would not be because of their own lax behavior. They did things the right way, he said, and she still lost her life.

“I see people out there that don’t have their masks on,” James said. “I just don’t see why people think they can walk around without masks on, knowing they can get somebody sick.”

A 76-year-old Beebe man, Nov. 25. A survivor of cancer and four coronary bypass operations, “he was a very tough guy and enjoyed his life in church and with his family,” according to his obituary. The husband and father of three nevertheless enjoyed gardening, auctioneering, flea markets, western movies, his family and his dog, Buddy.

He was actively gardening and attending auctions in the past year, the obituary said.

He was admitted to Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock on Nov. 21 with pneumonia and sepsis, according to a Pulaski County coroner’s report. He tested positive for covid-19 the next day.

Sgt. J.L. “Buck” Dancy, 62, Sherwood, Dec. 2. He was the first law enforcement officer in the state to die of covid-19 in the line of duty, according to the North Little Rock Police Department.

Dancy served on the police force since 1985, primarily as a detective in the Crimes against Persons Unit of the Investigations Division, later becoming a supervisor.

“He helped young detectives become seasoned professionals,” said Police Chief Tracy Roulston, who called Dancy “the rock” of his department unit.

“However, I think his best attribute was his ability to lean on his faith and help the families of victims of violent crimes. He has affected so many people. We are all still in shock.”

He battled the virus for several weeks, according to a news release from department spokesman officer Joe Green.

Dancy tested positive for covid-19 on Nov. 11 and was admitted to UAMS North Little Rock on Nov. 18, according to a Pulaski County coroner’s report.

Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police Executive Director Gary Sipes said any law enforcement officer death that results from action taken in the execution of duty is a death in the line of duty. Though it’s difficult to determine how and when most people contract the virus, Sipes said the North Little Rock Police Department did determine how it happened with Dancy.

North Little Rock Police will double down on current covid-19 protocol for the department by making sure personal protective equipment is worn and social distancing is followed when necessary, Green said.

Charles “Dickie” Richard Kennemore, 78, Osceola, Dec. 5. The former mayor of Osceola for nearly three decades was perhaps best known for helping bring Big River Steel to his town in 2014.

Knowing the plant could provide high-paying jobs, Kennemore used his connections and pushed hard for the largest economic development project in state history.

A native and lifelong resident of the Northeast Arkansas city, population 6,764 in 2018, he was known as “bullheaded” and “proactive.”

“If there was a problem or if he didn’t like the way things were going, he always taught me if you don’t like what you see or you don’t like how it’s going, you just get in there and you fix it — you be proactive,” said son Ken Kennemore.

An Arkansas State University graduate, Kennemore owned and operated businesses in real estate, construction and insurance, according to his obituary. He built and developed several residential subdivisions.

The husband and father of three ran successfully for mayor of Osceola in 1990 and held onto the job for 28 years. The city, like many Delta towns, was declining when he took office. It now has built several new facilities, including a justice complex, community center, senior citizen center and animal shelter. The city attracted other businesses and industries as well.

State Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, said Kennemore stood out.

“He was the best mayor in our area, and we have some good mayors here,” said Wallace, a Kennemore friend. “He really drove economic development, and Dickie was a big reason we have Big River Steel sitting over there.”

As the covid-19 pandemic spread this year, Kennemore, who was defeated for reelection in 2018, doubled-down on looking after his own health. He decided to ride his bike 5 miles almost every day, his son said.

When he tested positive for coronavirus, his family believed he would see the virus through successfully as he has with most other problems. Even as the prognosis turned grim, his son said the way his father fought, living longer than doctors estimated, was emblematic of who he was.

Geraldine Buckingham, 84, Harrison, Dec. 11. Buckingham retired in May after teaching business at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff for 54 years.

She loved to cook, play cards and travel — visiting every state except Alaska and several spots abroad, such as Israel and St. Thomas, said her son Earl Buckingham, the former Razorback and NFL defensive lineman.

“She was pretty independent for an 84-year-old woman,” he said. Stern but loving, Buckingham taught her students — and her two children — lessons from the “book of life.”

“It doesn’t cost anything to be polite, be on time and to treat people with courtesy and respect — and work hard,” he said his mother taught him. “Do those things, and you have a chance.”

It’s not clear how his mother contracted the coronavirus, he said. She developed a cough and went to her doctor, who routed her to the emergency room at Baptist Health Medical Center-North Little Rock. She was admitted Dec. 2 and tested positive for covid-19, according to a coroner’s report.

Daily progress reports to the family were up and down, he said. After a couple of days, she was no longer able to talk by phone because she required a mask to assist her breathing. Her doctor said her age and preexisting conditions made it unlikely that she would survive.

Her son took the family to the hospital on Dec. 6, where they gathered outside her window and peered inside.

“That seems to have energized her,” he said. “She waved at us and seemed to be perked up a little bit when she saw us.”

Mother of two, grandmother of five and great-grandmother of eight, she died five days later, leaving a void in the lives of many, he said.

“It’s a huge loss,” her son said. “She was a one-of-a-kind lady. It’s a big loss for more people than just my family. She was a mom and granny to a whole lot of people, more than us.”

Information for this article was contributed by Lara Farrar, William Sanders, Neal Earley, Kat Stromquist and Ginny Monk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

“He was hardworking, he was genuine, he loved everybody. Not only did he preach about being called to the ministry, he lived it.”

— LaToya Phillips-McBride, on her father, Julius Phillips

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