Fargo father and son die 3 days apart: one with dementia, one with COVID-19

Justo Mari and son John Mari both died in early November. John Mari had what seemed to be a mild case of COVID-19, but died suddenly five days into his illness, according to family.

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Justo Mari and son John Mari are shown in this undated photo. The younger died of COVID-19 on Nov. 6, 2021, and had not been vaccinated against the coronavirus. The elder died of dementia three days later. Special to The Forum
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FARGO — A local family is grieving the loss of a father and son within days of one another.

The son, who was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and had a seemingly mild case of the illness, died suddenly on Nov. 6.

His elderly father died with dementia three days later.

John Leon Mari, 58, of Fargo, developed breathing trouble at home and collapsed as his wife Lynne tried to get him to the hospital.

Justo Leon Mari, 94, died with family at his side at Kinder Care Assisted Living in West Fargo.


Brother and son Jeff Mari, 63, said he thinks John “called” his dad to join him in heaven after his death. Sister and daughter Marilyn Werre, 61, said a fellow resident happened to be singing "Amazing Grace" at the time.

Family members held a joint memorial service and funeral. “It comforted the family to know they were together,” Werre said.

Both men worked in health care.

Justo Mari, a native of the Philippines who was a physician and surgeon in North Dakota and Minnesota, retired nearly 30 years ago.

John Mari was a doctor of optometry and operated 20/20 Vision Express in Fargo.

Both John and wife Lynne came down with COVID, but her symptoms were worse than his, she said.

She, though, had been fully vaccinated against COVID. He had not, citing a lifelong fear of needles and doctors’ offices. Family members tried unsuccessfully to convince him.

John had no apparent underlying health conditions and had taken just three sick days over his 30 years in practice, she said. He died within an hour of resisting his wife’s pleas to take him to the emergency room.


The family, and John, would have celebrated his 59th birthday on Thanksgiving Day.

Justo Mari is pictured in 1955 after coming to Fargo from the Philippines for his medical residency. Special to The Forum

Medicine and hockey

Justo Mari graduated medical school in the Philippines and moved to Fargo in 1954 for his residency and internship at what was then St. Luke’s Hospital, now Sanford, and St. John’s Hospital, now Prairie St. John’s.

He met Diane Erickson, a nurse at St. John’s, and they married in 1957.

The two moved to Minneapolis for Justo to complete his surgical residency. Their oldest children, Jeff and Marilyn, were born there.

Knowing his love for the outdoors, a colleague invited him to Bottineau in far north central North Dakota, where he was hired as a general surgeon at St. Andrew’s Hospital in 1961. Two other children, John and Jackie, were born there.

In 1975, the family moved back to Fargo, where Justo was hired as an emergency room physician at St. Luke’s. He worked there for 10 years, followed by five years in immediate care, and retired in 1992.


Justo and Diane Mari spent the next 20 years between Arizona and Little McDonald Lake in Minnesota.

John Mari met his wife-to-be while both were college students. He was a bartender at the Trader and Trapper, and she grabbed his attention with a big tip after he served her a drink.

They were married in 1985 and had three children, daughters Jordan and Jade and a son, Jarrett.

Hockey was one of John's biggest passions.

“If he wasn’t coaching his kids, he was coaching somebody else’s kids and playing in the men’s league,” Lynne Mari said.

For years, the couple had season tickets to University of North Dakota hockey games, a tradition she is already sad to miss with him.

Lynne Mari talks Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, in her Fargo home about losing her husband John, 58, to COVID-19 and his father Justo, 94, to dementia in the same week. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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'I feel fine'

Lynne Mari also worked at 20/20 Vision Express, and on Monday morning of the week John died, he asked her to cancel his patients for the day. He’d been awake coughing the night before and didn’t want to cough on patients in the small exam rooms.

The next morning, same cancellation request, but Lynne didn’t worry because John said he felt fine other than the cough.

She did suggest COVID tests, so John, Lynne and daughter Jade, who’d also been around her dad over the weekend, all took the test.

The women were negative but John’s test was positive, so he began to quarantine.

On Wednesday, Lynne woke up feeling off. She got tested and was positive. A terrible headache and nausea sent her to bed for nearly three days while John was up “putzing” around the house, she said.

She had previously received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, while he, with his needle-phobia, had turned the vaccine down.

Friday night, she got out of bed and found John downstairs watching the UND-Denver hockey game. He was coughing but asked for some soup and stayed up late, she said.

Lynne Mari finds a photograph Monday, Nov. 22, 2021, of her husband John and his father Justo who died just three days apart. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor
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Saturday morning, the landline phone rang at 6:40.

She wasn’t surprised, because John often called it from his cellphone if he was out in the garage or in the basement, using the phones as an intercom system, of sorts.

He asked his wife for a decongestant to break up mucus in his chest. She brought it to the upstairs bedroom where he had been sleeping, noticed he was covered in sweat and offered to take him to the doctor.

“He’s Mr. Optimistic. He's sitting up ... ‘No, no, I feel fine,’” she said.

He took the medicine, and said he’d first wait to see if it would help before going in.

Lynne, a devout Catholic, went to another room to say the rosary and call her brother-in-law Jeff to get his opinion.

No more than 40 minutes later, she went back to find John with his face turning gray, and begged him to let her take him to the hospital.

John insisted on taking a shower first and then struggled to get dressed afterward. Lynne tried to walk him over to the bed but he collapsed and fell on top of her.

She realized she couldn't get him in the car herself, so she called 911.

In the short period that followed, John took two or three shallow breaths and then — there was “no more,” she said.

The 911 dispatcher advised her to start CPR, which she did, but it was all too late.

Emergency crews that arrived also tried, to no avail.

“There was nothing really that they could do,” Lynne said.

'Don't put your family through this'

After John’s death, a coroner told Lynne Mari this is happening more frequently with some COVID patients and newer strains of the virus.

The lungs get so filled with mucus, they can’t expand and oxygen levels plummet with little warning. “As a result, it's near-death before you even really know what's going on,” Lynne said.

John and Justo were buried at Holy Cross Cemetery South in Fargo.

Justo is remembered as a man of few words but who loved to joke with others, and John, as someone whose smile always brightened the day.

John gave the people he cared for funny or endearing nicknames.

When family members were notifying friends about his death, they had trouble figuring out who was who in John’s cellphone contacts, because they were listed by nickname only.

John and Lynne had planned to spend retirement in Arizona and at a newly finished cabin on the site of the original Mari family cabin on Little McDonald Lake in Otter Tail County, Minnesota.

The kids, grandkids and cousins are close, and were looking forward to more gatherings there in the future. Those gatherings will go on without John.

His youngest child, son Jarrett, encouraged memorial service attendees to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so.

“Don’t put your family through this,” he said.

Lynne and John Mari are seen in a 2018 photograph. Special to The Forum
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