By Sally Kestin, Asheville Watchdog
They taught students in school, delivered the mail, advised Congress, and served the country in wartime and peace.
One led public affairs for NASA and became the voice of launch control for Apollo space missions. Another was a composer and pianist who played in the original Mickey Mouse Orchestra.
A year has passed since Buncombe County recorded its first Covid-19 death on March 28, 2020. Since then, another 293 people have died. In the official government record, they’ll be remembered as statistics of a pandemic that killed swiftly and indiscriminately, but to their families, friends and neighbors, they were so much more.
Asheville Watchdog combed public health reports, obituaries and death certificates listing Covid-19 as a cause of death to examine the virus’s march through Buncombe. The lives lost include the working and the retired, journalists and college professors, nurses and firefighters, ministers and machinists.
More than two-thirds lived in nursing homes, far higher than the national average of 34 percent.
Glenn and Evelyn Bannerman, married 72 years, contracted the virus at Givens Highland Farms in Black Mountain. Both died — 17 days apart.
Glenn, a World War II veteran who enlisted in the U.S. Navy at 17, “demonstrated an uncanny knack for engaging people in play,” his family said. He was a professor of recreation and outdoor education at the Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va., for 31 years. “Building community, that was his life’s work,” said his daughter, Lee Ann Bannerman.
The Bannermans’ “faith was rock solid but always open and accepting,” said their son, Craig Bannerman.
Glenn, 93, and Evelyn, 92, childhood sweethearts, loved dancing and started an intergenerational folk dancing event on Thanksgiving weekend, the Bannerman Folk Camp in Black Mountain. They once took their family clog dancing through Central and South America as part of a U.S. State Department goodwill tour.
Glenn called square dances at Shindig on the Green in Asheville and emceed the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival. He contracted the coronavirus first, in October, and had to be moved to a Covid unit in the nursing home.
“It was the most devastating thing in the world to watch my mom and dad holding hands and saying goodbye to each other,” Beth Bannerman Gunn said.
Craig Bannerman said it’s been difficult to hear the statistics on Covid, “knowing that so many families were going through exactly the same thing … and how massive that loss is, but how little people are understanding it unless they’ve been through it.”
More than 543,000 people have died of the coronavirus in the United States, a toll that is still growing by more than 1,000 every day. Worldwide, more than 2.75 million have been lost.
Buncombe has a disproportionately high number of nursing homes and people over 65, said Stacie Saunders, Buncombe’s Public Health Director. “That does put us as having a larger vulnerable population,” she said.
Still, Saunders said, “It saddens me greatly to think that we’ve lost almost 300 people.”
Buncombe’s tally of 294 includes people who tested positive for the virus, died without fully recovering from Covid-19 and had no alternative cause of death. The list includes the ordinary and the well-known, and people who left an indelible mark on Asheville.
Jimmy Pappas, 95, co-founded the original Five Points Restaurant in Asheville in the 1970s, shortly after moving to the U.S. from Greece. A member of the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church of Asheville for nearly 55 years, Pappas “brought happiness, joy and laughter to all that knew him,” his obituary said. “He was a jokester,” his son, Mike, said. “He had a pet name for everybody.”
Pappas died in October after contracting the virus in his nursing home, The Oaks at Sweeten Creek, his son said.
Jimmie Crawford, 87, helped shape the news about Asheville during a nearly 40-year career at The Asheville Citizen Times as a reporter, city editor and assistant managing editor. He joined the paper after graduating college in 1958 and served as a U.S. Navy fire boat captain in the Korean War, his obituary said. Crawford bowled in Asheville leagues for 50 years and enjoyed fishing and playing poker with his family.
He died in January during the height of the pandemic. Nearly half of the county’s Covid deaths occurred in a seven-week period beginning in early December.
Asheville native Johnny Lee Timpson, known as “Chicken Hawk,” always had “a smile on his face, a joke on his lips, and was helpful to anyone interested in working out and lifting weights,” his obituary said. Timpson, 70, “was well known around the city” and worked as a certified nursing assistant. He was a member of Tried Stone Missionary Baptist Church, where he served in the Ushers Ministry.
Timpson, an African American, died in December at Mission Hospital.
People of color accounted for a disproportionately high number of coronavirus infections in Buncombe, but among deaths, 5 percent were Black and 4 percent Hispanic, both slightly lower than their percentage of the population.
George Hunnicutt, 82, a lifelong resident of Buncombe County, served Asheville as a firefighter for 17 years with the city’s Fire Department. He later worked in security at the Haywood Park Hotel. Hunnicutt was a beekeeper who loved tending his garden and sharing his vegetables with friends.
Some led storied careers in other parts of the country before choosing Asheville as their retirement destination.
Michael McLeod, 78, a lawyer and lobbyist, served as general counsel of the Senate agriculture committee and established a law firm in Washington, D.C. He and his wife, Sandy, bought land in South Asheville that the family developed into a vacation rental resort, Asheville Cabins of Willow Winds. McLeod retired in 2017 and moved to Asheville, his obituary said. He enjoyed walking, his two German shepherds, and spending time with his family.
Patricia “Patsy” Horan, 80, of Asheville, spent 45 years in the publishing industry as founding editor of a Crown/Random House division and as editor of books and magazines for Time Life, Grove, Viking and Penguin, according to her obituary. She started an independent publishing imprint, The Round House Press, wrote plays, and co-founded New York City’s Women and Wisdom, a center for spirituality.
Charles Hollinshead, 89, a pilot in the U.S. Navy, later joined NASA’s public affairs department. He became manager of the news center for Apollo 11 and served as the “voice of launch control” for several Apollo missions and numerous unmanned launches, his obituary said. Hollinshead earned several awards, including NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal for his role in restoring public confidence in the agency following the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. After retirement, he settled in Biltmore Lake before moving to the NC State Veterans Home.
John Hollinshead, his son, described him as compassionate and outgoing. “He was very astute at listening to what other folks had to say in a non-judgmental way. Friends would say, ‘Your dad actually listens to you.’ ” Hollinshead contracted Covid a week after receiving his first vaccine shot, his son said.
While the pandemic impacted Buncombe’s elderly the most — 86 percent of the deaths were residents 65 and over — the virus claimed younger people too.
Tammy Summey, of Asheville, died of Covid pneumonia in July. She was 45. A native of Henderson County, her occupation was listed as “entrepreneur.” No other information was available, and her family could not be reached.
Randy Lee Anders, 50, of Barnardsville, was a beloved employee of the Asheville Parks and Recreation Department. “He was gentle, kind and a hard worker” who will be dearly missed, his co-workers wrote on Facebook. Anders died in November, 10 days after contracting Covid.
Misael Morales Garcia, 51, of Weaverville, died in October at Mission Hospital. He had been a sergeant in the Guatemalan military and loved fishing and his nieces and nephews, his obituary said.
Nursing homes hard hit
Nowhere was the virus more deadly than Buncombe’s nursing homes. Beginning in May, Covid swept through all but one of the county’s 19 licensed homes. Asheville Watchdog previously reported on Aston Park, one of the hardest-hit in the state, where as many as three residents died in a single day.
Nursing homes locked down early in the pandemic, but employees and vendors continued to come and go and were likely the source of transmission, said Saunders, the county health director.
“It’s brought in by someone who is working or even folks who are not necessarily full-time staff that are delivering things or coming in for certain services,” she said. “That’s typically how it happens.”
Some nursing homes battled the virus for months only to have second, third, and even fourth outbreaks.
Roger Woodruff, 78, died of Covid at StoneCreek Health and Rehabilitation, where more than 150 residents and staff contracted the virus and 19 died. Woodruff taught middle school geography and history and coached women’s ski teams at two colleges in Vermont, where he also owned a restaurant, his obituary said. Woodruff worked for Sysco, a food service company, and transferred to Asheville in the 1990s. He loved golf, skiing and his favorite football team, the New York Giants.
Monte Williams, Sr., 64, worked at Gerber Foods for more than 20 years and played on the company softball and bowling teams. A 1974 graduate of Asheville High School, Williams was one of 10 residents to die of the virus at The Oaks at Sweeten Creek.
Raymond Veckruise, 102, a pianist and composer, was born during another pandemic, the 1918 Spanish Flu. He played in the original Mickey Mouse Orchestra at 14 and served in the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Veckruise taught chorus to high schoolers in Florida and founded a Christian adoption agency in South Carolina, placing more than 200 babies into adoptive homes.
At 71, he earned his private pilot’s license. Veckruise traveled the world with his wife, Jean, before retiring to Givens Highland Farms, where he produced music programs for the residents.
Veckruise maintained his independence, living in an apartment at Givens, but in November moved to the nursing home to join Jean, 92, who was in the memory care unit, said his daughter, Ronni Echevarria. Veckruise spent two weeks in quarantine. “The day after they moved her in, she tested positive for Covid and then he got it,” his daughter said. “She survived, and he did not.”
Buncombe’s nursing home residents and staff were among the first to be vaccinated beginning in mid-December. Deaths have subsided, but six nursing homes still have active Covid outbreaks.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Sally Kestin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter. Email email@example.com.