A father of teenagers, two memorable moms, a doctor, an entrepreneur, a jokester — they are among the Madison-area lives lost to COVID-19.
It took nearly five months for the state to reach 1,000 pandemic deaths, in August. The 2,000 mark came less than three months later. The state passed 3,000 deaths Saturday and is projected to top 5,000 by Christmas.
Beginning today, the Wisconsin State Journal is sharing the stories of some of those we've lost. If you'd like to share the story of a loved one from the Madison area lost to the pandemic, please contact City Editor Phil Brinkman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mom valued gift of shared experiences
Anne Heine’s daughters lived near her and saw her regularly, but she would still talk with them by phone almost every day, often several times a day.
“She always had the insight into how everybody else was doing in the family,” said daughter Kate Dale, of Fitchburg. “She was the hub.”
Daughter Meg Prestigiacomo, of Madison, said her mother regularly attended her own sons’ soccer games and band concerts, and liked giving experiences — like a weekend trip to Chicago — instead of items as gifts.
“She definitely valued getting together over things,” Prestigiacomo said.
Heine, of Fitchburg, died from COVID-19 on July 8, her 73rd birthday. She had no underlying medical conditions and had been in the hospital only three times, for the births of her children, including son Tim Heine of Florida.
“I used to say, ‘If I ever got it or my family ever got it, we’d be fine because we’re healthy,’” Prestigiacomo said. “I don’t believe that anymore.”
Despite rarely going out and wearing a mask when she did, Heine became ill in mid-June, her daughters said. By June 24, she was at UW Hospital and soon on a ventilator. The next two weeks were full of ups and downs, with Heine’s condition seeming to improve enough that doctors said she could come off the ventilator before complications caused her death the next day.
Heine’s daughters are thankful the whole family, including their spouses and children, spent two weeks in Italy with their mom in July 2019. “She was so grateful to be a part of that trip,” Dale said.
With the holidays coming up, the daughters recall how much their mom loved entertaining, with just the right music playing and candles lit. “It would be beautiful, down to the flowers and the tablecloths and the dishes,” Dale said. “Everything was always welcoming and warm and cozy.”
Heine made an effort to keep in touch with friends and was good at sending thank you notes. After her death, her family saw reciprocation in the hundreds of notes they received letting them know how kind their mom was.
“Being kind was truly our mom’s legacy,” Dale said.
After 64 years of marriage, 'I really don't have a confidant'
For 28 years, Janet Schieldt worked as a teacher’s aide at Lowell Elementary School in Madison. She was also active in the education of her three children.
“She was on the PTA, she went on all the field trips, she made all the cupcakes,” said daughter Mary Jo Schieldt, of Madison.
Schieldt and her husband, Sheldon, got sick the same day in late March from COVID-19, a few days after encountering a coughing child at a clinic in the early days of the pandemic.
She died a week later, on April 3, at Stoughton Hospital, not far from the couple’s farm along the Yahara River between Stoughton and Edgerton. She was 84 and for years had taken a medication for rheumatoid arthritis that increases the risk of infections.
She and Sheldon, graduates of Edgerton High School, were married for 64 years. They discussed politics, their children, their grandchildren, “whatever was going on in our crazy world,” said Sheldon, 86. “We didn’t always agree, but we were at least a sounding board for each other.”
Now, he said, “I really don’t have a confidant.”
The couple had season tickets to Badgers football games for 38 years and to Badgers basketball games for 16 years.
As they both developed body aches and a fever in the spring, Janet’s weakened lungs left her struggling to breathe and she was taken to the hospital April 1. Sheldon stayed with her, even as his illness grew worse and he had to wear a “space suit,” with a pump supplying air in a hood.
The rest of the family kept vigil in the hospital’s parking lot. “It was completely empty, not a car,” said daughter Jodi Schieldt-Grubb. “It was almost like a ghost town.”
Now, nearly eight months after her mother’s death, with the COVID-19 death toll rising in Wisconsin, Mary Jo Schieldt said she is frustrated so many people refuse to wear masks.
“If they don’t care about themselves, they should at least care about their family, friends and community,” she said.
Father of teenagers cooked chili for neighbors, friends
John Fleck was known for his huge batches of chili.
“I can’t even tell you how many cans of beans and tomatoes he would put in there,” said his wife, Pam. “He would always make way more than we could eat. That was always a reason to invite neighbors over, or friends.”
Fleck, 54, of Mount Horeb, died from COVID-19 on April 4, leaving behind two children: Jack, 16, and Mackenzie, 14. He had no underlying medical conditions.
Pam Fleck said her husband loved cooking, home projects and the outdoors. At Quivey’s Grove, where he was a manager years ago, he started the restaurant’s Beer Fest, which has continued for 27 years.
Shortly before they were married in 1999, the couple had a house built on 15 acres near Blanchardville. They did most of the interior work themselves. John also enjoyed landscaping.
“He appreciated nature, being out where you could see the hawks soar,” she said.
They moved in 2017 to Mount Horeb, with both of them most recently working for the insurer Humana. He had also worked for Duluth Trading Company and Lands’ End.
On March 17, he woke up with a fever. With the coronavirus just starting to pick up in Wisconsin, he was worried, mostly about giving his illness to Pam, whose immune system is compromised from rheumatoid arthritis.
But when he called his medical clinic over several days, they said to stay home and not to worry, Pam Fleck said.
After a co-worker tested positive for COVID-19, John was tested March 25 and learned the next day he was infected. He started to have trouble breathing and Pam took him to UW Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator March 27.
His kidneys stopped working two days later, requiring dialysis, and he developed bacterial pneumonia, Pam said. But by April 3, he seemed to be turning around, with doctors saying he might be able to go off the ventilator the next day.
But the next morning, his heartbeat became erratic. A nurse let Pam listen by phone as a medical team tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate him and then declared him dead. Just hours earlier, she learned she had COVID-19 too.
She recovered from her illness, but trying to comfort her children while dealing with the loss of her husband and being ill was a lot to handle.
“We were shut in our house, not being able to mourn with anyone else or get comforted by anyone else,” she said. “It was horrible. I still can’t believe it.”
A teaser who was in tune, despite hearing impairment
Steve Uttech was born with a hearing impairment and couldn’t make out people’s voices, but he could read lips and sing along with others.
But when it came to “Happy Birthday,” he purposely bellowed the tune off key and out of sync with everyone else, said his daughter Karrie Uttech. It became a tradition that made everyone laugh.
“We talk about how boring our family events are going to be now. Somebody is going to have to step up,” she said. “He was always very funny.”
Uttech, 69, of Watertown, died from COVID-19 on Oct. 25. He had no underlying medical conditions, his daughter said.
Unable to hear except for some low-register sounds, Uttech went to a school for the deaf as a child but graduated from Watertown High School in 1969. He worked for Watertown Metals, later known as Western Industries, for 44 years — most recently in quality control — before retiring several years ago, his daughter said.
When Karrie Uttech and her brother and sister were growing up, their father make it clear he didn’t want them to learn American Sign Language, even though he used it with deaf friends.
“Dad wanted us to talk to him by him reading our lips,” she said. “That was very important to him.”
He knew all the words to “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and could sing it on key. “For someone not being able to hear, it was pretty amazing,” Karrie Uttech said.
During retirement, he enjoyed catching up with friends in Watertown and elsewhere he hadn’t seen for years. “He was a true social butterfly,” she said.
He became ill in late September, testing positive for the coronavirus and developing pneumonia. On Oct. 3, he was admitted to ProHealth Oconomowoc Memorial Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator until he died.
At his memorial service this month, Karrie Uttech recalled how her dad would sneak up on loved ones and tickle them.
“He often drove me crazy, but what I wouldn’t give for that now,” she said.
'Gentle giant' initially skeptical about pandemic
Richard Grams had his home built on a wooded hill northeast of Deerfield, with enough land to add two houses for some of his children nearby.
He built Greater Insurance Service Corp., a Madison company he founded in 1974 that today has 18 other locations around Wisconsin.
In his 70s, he built — from scratch, over several years — a log cabin on Squirrel Lake near Minocqua, where the family has three other cabins.
The man whom loved ones called a “gentle giant” died from COVID-19 on Oct. 7, apparently after getting infected over Labor Day weekend in the Northwoods.
Grams, 80, had no underlying medical conditions, said his granddaughter Jamae Wierzba, a UW Hospital emergency room nurse. “He was an 80-year-old who lived his life like a 40, 50-year-old,” she said.
A supporter of President Donald Trump, Grams was initially skeptical about the seriousness of the pandemic. “He was reluctant to believe that this was as big of a problem as they were making it to be,” Wierzba said.
He became more concerned about the coronavirus over the summer, wearing masks and avoiding crowds as recommended, she said. But some doubt remained, said Grams’ son-in-law, Minnesota state Sen. Matt Klein, a Democrat and a doctor.
“I would advise him to wear masks and then to distance socially and follow the usual regulations and I think he was skeptical about those recommendations,” Klein told CNN, noting that he and Grams had a good relationship.
Through his entrepreneurship, Grams encouraged those around him to achieve, said Wierzba, who credits him for helping her pursue a nursing degree and now a master’s in nursing.
“He was somebody who pushes you to your limits, and pushes you to be who you should be, and doesn’t let down,” she said. “But he did that in a very gentle way.”
When he started having trouble breathing in September, she drove him to the emergency room, at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in Madison. He was admitted and put in intensive care.
After 16 days on a ventilator, during which no visitors were allowed, he died at the hospital.
“That’s the biggest thing with COVID,” Wierzba said. “It’s not just the sick family member. It’s the dying with loneliness too.”
Doctor, tennis player, role model never complained
As Dr. Timothy Donovan led his daughter and granddaughter on a lengthy hike near Tucson, Arizona, he stumbled and fell. The Madison doctor brushed himself off and insisted the group keep going so his granddaughter, 10 or 11 at the time, could experience success in the outdoors.
The next day, Donovan went to urgent care, where an X-ray revealed a fracture. “He had broken his wrist, but he didn’t say one word to anybody,” said his daughter, Kristin Nelson, who was with her daughter on the hike. “He wanted to give her a sense of accomplishment.”
Donovan was never one to complain, Nelson said, whether it was growing up as the eldest son of 10 children in southeastern Wisconsin, ushering Dean Clinic through mergers as president or fighting multiple myeloma in his later years, when he became UW-Madison’s oldest stem-cell transplant recipient at the age of 72.
“He would listen to the rest of us complain about one thing or another,” Nelson said. “But he’d just focus on the positive.”
Donovan died from COVID-19 and his blood cancer on April 10 at age 82. He became ill from the coronavirus in late March.
“He didn’t even get that sick with COVID-19. But he was so sick with his cancer, that was all it took,” said Dr. Conrad Andringa, a longtime friend and Dean Clinic colleague.
Donovan, from a Catholic family, entered the seminary but started a hunger strike to bring attention to his desire to attend college. “It was to let his parents know he wanted to be a doctor, not a priest,” Andringa said.
After attending Marquette University, Donovan received his medical degree from UW School of Medicine and Public Health. He and Andringa, medical school classmates, ended up at Dean Clinic, Andringa as a pediatrician and Donovan an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Donovan became president of Dean Clinic, helping it merge with another doctor group and launch an HMO, Dean Health Plan.
“He was a friend you could count on,” said Andringa, who played the card game Sheepshead with Donovan and joined him in attending Badgers football, basketball and hockey games.
Donovan was a dedicated tennis player, spending many hours at the John Powless Tennis Center in Madison. He also played bridge, achieving the title of life master.
“He worked extremely hard at whatever he did, whether it be tennis or golf or bridge,” said Nelson, a veterinarian in Janesville.
As with many COVID-19 deaths, a traditional memorial service was not held.
“It’s a big Irish family and there was no big funeral, no big wake,” Nelson said. “There wasn’t a lot of closure.”
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