The coronavirus pandemic that disrupted daily life so suddenly six months ago may have slowed its march, but it’s pushing Colorado to the verge of a grim new milestone: 2,000 deaths.
As the nation nears 200,000 coronavirus fatalities, the Colorado toll — 1,988 deaths as of Saturday — reflects the number of people who had COVID-19 in their systems when they died. Most of those deaths, 1,889, were caused directly by the virus, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The state’s public health data shows that the virus, while infecting people of all ages, has tended to more often kill older people: three-quarters have been 70 or older. Fatalities also have included disproportionate numbers of men as well as some racial and ethnic minorities.
With this milestone looming, The Denver Post sought to put a human face on the virus’s deadly toll in Colorado, sharing the stories of some of the families most hurt by the pandemic.
The Archuleta family, torn by losses
On March 14, when the Archuleta family gathered at Longhorn Steakhouse to celebrate two birthdays, there were no stay-at-home orders, no mask mandates, no quarantines.
Within days of the birthday party, 11 people — mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, granddaughters and grandsons — had COVID-19.
“We’d barely heard about it and then we were sick,” Connie Archuleta said.
On April 1, Jessica Archuleta, 73, died, followed by her 54-year-old son Gary Archuleta on April 4. The two had been hospitalized a day apart in late March along with Manuel Archuleta, Jessica’s husband and Gary’s father.
At one point, all three had been on ventilators. Manuel, who had the most pre-existing health issues, survived. The day he came home from the hospital, his children broke the news that his wife and son were gone. He recovered from COVID but not the heartbreak, his daughter Nannette Archuleta said.
Manuel, 74, died on May 26 — two days before his 57th wedding anniversary.
“My mom did everything for him,” Nannette Archuleta said. “He just couldn’t live without her.”
Jessica and Manuel, who were born and raised in Fort Garland, met as students at Sierra Grande School in Blanca. They married when he was 17 and she was 16 and moved to Denver. Manuel retired from the U.S. Postal Service; Jessica ran a licensed, in-home day care, Nannette Archuleta said.
“She was never mad,” Nannette Archuleta said. “She just had so much patience.”
The couple raised three children, and most of the family lived within minutes of each other in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, often gathering to eat Mexican food and play cards.
Connie met Gary at Horace Mann Middle School. Although they dated off and on for several years and raised children with different people, they finally got together for good in 2012.
“Gary, he had the best smile,” Connie Archuleta said. “His smile. His personality. He was so much fun to be around.”
The day Connie called an ambulance because her husband, who owned a house painting business, couldn’t breathe, she was sick, too. She wasn’t allowed to go with him.
“He stopped at the door and he told me, ‘I love you and we’re going to be OK,’ ” she said. “I didn’t think he was going to die.
“This whole thing has changed our lives so much. I try to go to work and smile. But I’m so miserable. I’m so brokenhearted.”
Graham and Mary Davies, married for 67 years
Graham and Mary Davies lived a love story.
The couple married young — Mary was 19 and Graham was 22 — and took off to Morocco, where Graham was stationed as a member of the U.S. Air Force. They traveled the world before returning to the United States and eventually made their home in Aurora.
The only time they were apart was the year Graham spent in Vietnam during the war, when he worked as a photographer in reconnaissance, their daughters said.
“They were tied together at the hip,” said Diane Gregorius, their daughter.
Graham worked as a real estate agent after retiring from the Air Force after 23 years. Mary worked as a teacher’s aide at Eastridge Community Elementary School in Aurora for more than 15 years.
Their house was always filled with polka or old country-western music, said Hayley Gregorius, their granddaughter. Graham collected coins and Mary, when she was younger, collected animals. Graham loved “Saturday Night Live” into his 80s and became funnier and more ornery as he aged. Every road trip began with Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” one of Graham’s favorite songs.
The couple played pranks on each other, traveled to nearly every state and slept side-by-side every night, even pushing their two twin beds together after moving into an assisted living facility in Centennial.
But the couple died apart, alone, of COVID-19 in May. Mary, 86, died first at the assisted living facility. When the family told Graham, who was hospitalized with the virus, the 89-year-old stopped fighting. He died a week after his wife.
“He just refused everything,” daughter Marlene Davies said. “Couldn’t live without her.”
They had just celebrated 67 years of marriage. They hadn’t seen their family since April, or been hugged by them since March.
“Nobody should have to die like that, and nobody should have to grieve like that,” son-in-law Bob Gregorius said. “It’s a shame that they died like that, not being right next to each other.”
Yoshihito “Yoshi” Hashigami, quiet and hard-working
After Yoshihito Hashigami’s death, his son learned new dimensions about his father — a reserved man who’d left Japan for the United States nearly 50 years ago and had spent his life laboring with his hands.
Each day, Hashigami’s landscaping customers would call, unaware of his death. They knew the 72-year-old Denver man as Yoshi, and he’d cut their grass, prune their shrubs and help with their flowerbeds. They told Kaz Hashigami, 46, stories about his father’s work and the family-like connections he’d forged with them — prompting regret for the deep conversations they’d never had.
“My dad had a good heart,” he said, and those accounts about his work “kind of opened my eyes. I had to find out about that after the fact.”
He had heard stories about his father’s adventurous youth, spent aboard whaling ships off the Japanese coast. But Yoshi Hashigami spoke less about the odd jobs he had worked in Denver, including as a school janitor, to support Tamako, his wife of 48 years, and their son.
He spent his last two decades or so building the landscaping business in the warm months, while cooking at Japanese restaurants during the winter, most recently at Sushi Kazu in Centennial.
Kaz Hashigami said he’s felt guilt at the realization he likely brought COVID-19 into the southeast Denver home he’s shared since he returned home to care for his aging parents at the close of a 22-year career in the U.S. Navy.
He knows that he started coughing first, and the virus likely had spread inside the call center where he works. His father, who had asthma and diabetes, began wheezing but brushed it off at first.
On March 30, Yoshi took a turn and died at home as paramedics arrived. Tamako, 85, also got sick, spending more than a week in the hospital in early April while she and her son grieved Yoshi’s death.
She has recovered, but tests confirmed that she and Yoshi both had COVID-19, their son said.
“My whole thing was letting people know to take the minimal precautions — because you don’t want to go through what I went through,” Kaz Hashigami said.
Sandra and Gus Kunz, victims of a front-line outbreak
In the early days of the pandemic, Sandra Kunz lamented to her sister that the Walmart Supercenter where she worked the register wasn’t giving masks to store employees. So she ordered her own and kept reporting for work.
By late April, the Aurora store, one of many where front-line workers labored to keep shelves stocked while other businesses closed, was shut down temporarily by local health officials. Three people had died of complications from COVID-19 — including Kunz, 72, and her husband, Gus, 63, who didn’t work at the store but likely caught it at home.
Sandy and Gus Kunz’s story was one of opposites attracting. It was a happy development for Sandra, according to those who knew her, after she’d had a rough early life that included teenage pregnancy, raising her son on her own after her father had kicked her out of the house, and a string of abusive relationships. She persevered.
The couple met more than three decades ago at a Mervyn’s department store, recalled their friend Bonnie Williams, who was a sales clerk with Sandy. Gus worked in receiving. While Sandy was a free spirit, Gus was more of a nerd with a passion for building model airplanes.
Even after a long courtship and 16 years of marriage, they still called each other on nearly every break during the work day, said Paula Spellman, 64, one of Sandy’s sisters. While Sandy was at Walmart, Gus worked in security at Denver International Airport.
“They just truly couldn’t get enough of one another,” Spellman said.
Sandy had a lung condition and carried oxygen, but Williams said the couple stayed active.
“They were constantly going somewhere — camping in the mountains and going to Estes Park,” she said.
The Kunzes suffered a joint heartbreak when Sandy’s son, 54-year-old Paul Thomas, died in a car crash in December 2017. In early April, a new heartbreak formed, as Gus Kunz watched as his wife was hospitalized with COVID-19.
He would soon follow, occupying a room on the same hallway. He died on April 18, and Sandy died on April 20. In her final days, Sandy was on a ventilator — likely unaware of her husband’s deteriorating condition, Spellman said.
“I was just so sad,” she said, “because I wish they could’ve wheeled them in the same room. Perhaps they could’ve gotten strength from that.”
Ernest “Ernie” Garcia, runner and caretaker
Once, Lena Bramwell thought she was going to cheer for her uncle, Ernie Garcia, as he ran a 5K race. Then he asked her where her running shoes were.
“I never ran before a day in my life. He told me, ‘Never mind, I got an extra pair,’ ” Bramwell said. “I remember I was so mad at him but then a couple hours later I knew that, if it wasn’t for that, I couldn’t have said I ever ran a 5K.”
That’s the way Garcia was, Bramwell said. He pushed everyone — his family, friends and his fiancé, Scott Johnson — to be better, inspired them.
And when Garcia, 39, died on Aug. 20 after contracting COVID-19, Bramwell said Durango lost a gregarious soul and friend to everyone he met.
“Anywhere we’d go, he’d touch everybody’s life,” Bramwell said. “He wasn’t shy. He’d just make a friend. The person standing next to him in a line would become his friend.”
Garcia’s cousin, Chantell Toledo, said she is thankful he touched her life and so many others. He was a great man, Toledo said, “a diamond in the rough.”
A born caretaker, Bramwell said Garcia was a nurse, the director of his department and had spent time working in mental health and nursing home facilities. He loved to run, completing several ultra-marathons and scheduling marathons to coincide with his vacations.
And while he took care of himself, Bramwell said Garcia could still party. He showed everyone around him that he cared for them more than himself, she said.
Bramwell said her family has been marred by loss. Her father died when she was an infant and her brother died five years ago. As she grew, Garcia stepped up and they bonded. But now that he’s gone, she’s left to wonder how to overcome yet another massive loss.
“He was the heart and soul of our family,” she said. “A goofball and yet he was the most successful of us.”
Cody Lyster, one of the first young victims
Cody Lyster lived and breathed baseball, from the Little League fields of Aurora where he first learned the game, and later umpired, to the club baseball team at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
“Baseball wasn’t just a sport to him — it was a way of connecting with people, of educating and teaching,” said his father, Kevin Lyster. Off the field, the jovial college junior made a point of striking up cheerful conversations with strangers he could tell were having a tough time.
The athlete’s death from complications of COVID-19 on April 8 would sound an alarm — heard well beyond Colorado — about the potentially deadly threat for young people. At the time, Lyster was, at 21, the state’s youngest victim of the pandemic.
His parents recall the confusion of March, when Kevin first battled what seemed like pneumonia and then, after a new flare-up, tested positive for COVID-19. Cody, home for spring break, also grew sick and was rushed March 30 to the Medical Center of Aurora. Over more than eight days, hopeful signs of improvement gave way to a decline that perplexed doctors.
Eventually, his heart gave out.
His parents mourn the son who was a criminal justice major and wanted to follow his father, a sergeant on the police force at the University of Colorado’s Anschutz Medical Campus, into law enforcement.
But mostly they focus on the attributes that drew Cody close to so many people, starting with his love of baseball. In a bid to stand out, he long had sported a beard and hairstyle that bore a resemblance to his favorite player, Colorado Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon.
“He was very proud of his mullet,” said his mother Lea Ann Lyster, 49. “I mean, the kid actually had pretty great hair.”
They also have tried to raise awareness of the need for younger people to take pandemic precautions seriously. Thanks to media coverage of Cody’s death, including by People magazine, they have heard from people as far away as Australia.
“These people have told us that Cody’s story has helped them save their own kids’ lives,” said Kevin Lyster, 49, who still has reduced lung capacity lingering from his milder COVID-19 infection. “His story and his life have touched so many people.”
Kareem “Korey” Hawthorne, family man and jokester
The April morning Kareem “Korey” Hawthorne died from COVID-19, he was at home in Denver with his 13-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
His twin sister, Kimara Carter, who lives in West Virginia, had called their mother because her brother wasn’t answering his phone. Hawthorne, 45, always answered his twin, even in the week since he’d gotten sick. He didn’t respond to his mother, either.
Charlotte Harbison, who also lives in West Virginia, called her grandson. He told her, “My Dad won’t wake up.”
“I told myself, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” Harbison said. “Because if I panicked, he would.”
The boy had called his mother to come help so the grandmother and grandson stayed on the phone, waiting for paramedics. They were too late.
“I never thought in a million years I would have lost my brother this year,” Carter said.
Hawthorne’s family believes he was exposed to the coronavirus by a co-worker at Denver’s Pepsi plant. He received a positive COVID-19 test on April 2.
“He told me when he found out he had it that he was scared,” Carter said. “I tried to encourage him.”
On April 6, Hawthorne went to a hospital but was told in the emergency room there was nothing the medical staff could do and he left. He died two days later.
His family said Hawthorne was hilarious and kept everyone laughing. He also was a great cook, specializing in hot wings, hoagies, steak and spaghetti.
But his priority was taking care of his three children: Gyasi, 13; Aja, 9; and Madison, 8. He cooked their meals, helped with homework, watched their sports practices and raised them to cheer for the Broncos and Nuggets, his family said.
Linda Pierre would tell her brother he didn’t have to buy his children everything they wanted. And he would say, “Well they want it,” Pierre said. “I’m going to take on an extra shift so they can get it.”
In his father’s funeral program, Gyasi wrote: “My dad was a good dad. He was caring, and never thought about himself. He was a fun dad. I could talk to him about anything and he would keep it on the low. Most of my best memories with him were on a daily basis, not just at a fun event or time. If it wasn’t for him disciplining me when I did wrong, I would have been lost. He was tough on me a lot. Not to be a good athlete, but a good man.”
Marty Evans, who left difficult and happy memories
The bedroom in which Marty Evans slept for the last three years of her life remains untouched. It’s just as she left it in March when she and her daughter, Tracy Dilka, contracted COVID-19.
“It’s just like she still lives there,” Dilka said.
Evans, 85, died at the end of that month. Dilka recovered, but said the pain of losing her mother remains.
Memories lie around every corner of Dilka’s home in Greeley, where Evans had stayed as she suffered from dementia.
Evans’ adopted cats still yowl outside her bedroom door, Dilka said. For weeks, her great grandson sat at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for her to come down and watch Saturday morning cartoons with him.
“We got snow in September and I can just hear her: ‘You’d better get out there and cover up the flowers,’ ” Dilka said.
During the “bad mom days” Dilka said she’ll crawl into her mother’s bed and read.
She recalls watching her mother in the hospital, and hoping she’d recognize her own twin daughters.
“To lose mom the way I did was awful,” Dilka said.
But Dilka also recalls the happier times, Evan’s quick wit, her old-fashioned sensibilities, the jackpot — 2,000 pennies — she hit at the slots. She remembers reading in the chair next to Evans. They didn’t talk, Dilka said. They didn’t have to.
Teresa Williams, Dilka’s twin sister, remembers as well. They and their older sister had a wonderful childhood in Wray, Williams said.
“I was called the Disneyland Daughter,” Williams said with a chuckle.
On Fridays, Williams said she spent time with her mother, and as Dilka would leave, she’d remind them Evans needed insulin at a specific time.
“We would stand at the door and wave goodbye,” Williams said. “And as soon as the door shut, mom would say, ‘OK, where’s the Peeps? Do you have the black licorice?’ ”
The sisters say they find solace in each other, in those memories. While they have yet to hold a funeral for Evans, they say they take comfort knowing she now rests next to their late father in a tiny cemetery in St. Francis, Kansas, just down the road from their childhood home.
Gaurdie Banister, community organizer and veteran
Gaurdie Banister served abroad in the Air Force, stood up to death threats from the Ku Klux Klan, worked to end job discrimination, presided over two local NAACP chapters, fed thousands of families through his church’s food pantry, served in endless Aurora community groups, sang in church choirs, raised a family and fried many catfish.
He was a dedicated father, a trailblazer who wore an easy confidence and was a staple in Aurora going-ons for decades, his family said.
“If he walked into a room, everybody knew he was there,” said Barbara Shannon-Banister, his wife of 64 years.
Gaurdie Banister died April 6 of suspected COVID-19 complications, just a few days short of his 89th birthday. A month earlier, he was happily eating root beer floats and showing off his visiting daughter to all the residents and staff of his assisted living facility, his daughter, Gaurdia Banister, said.
“We miss him dearly,” she said. “It’s hard to wrap my arms around it.”
Gaurdie Banister grew up poor in New Orleans and, after getting out of the military, married Shannon-Banister. A year later, the couple and their 4-month-old daughter hopped on a train to Casper, Wyoming, where they planned to start a new life in a state they had never seen.
Banister served as the president of the Casper NAACP chapter and became the focus of the KKK’s racist hate after he spoke against the University of Wyoming football coach who dismissed 14 Black football players from the team for protesting racism.
“We left the South so our children would not grow up under segregation,” Shannon-Banister said. “And here we are in the middle of Wyoming and this happens, so we had to do something.”
The family later moved to Aurora after he began a career investigating job discrimination. Shannon-Banister, a staple of Aurora civic engagement herself, founded the Aurora chapter of the NAACP in 1991 and “voluntold” her husband, a natural leader, to be the first president.
Gaurdia Banister remembered her father as an avid fisherman and a man who saw a friend in every person. He comforted her through breakups and drove her across the country several times as she pursued graduate degrees and jobs. Although he only had a high school diploma, he wanted his son and daughter to have access to the best education, she said.
“He was always one of my biggest cheerleaders and champions,” said Gaurdia Banister, who earned a doctorate and holds several teaching appointments.