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North Dakota reaches 100 COVID-19 deaths: 'We remember you'

Helen Nemzek when young.JPG
Helen Nemzek when young. Special to The Forum
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FARGO — As North Dakota arrived at the grim milestone of 100 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, July 28, memorial services across the state are still on hold. Families are unable to say proper goodbyes to their loved ones. And a vaccine is still a distant hope.

With Fargo city leaders issuing a call for people to wear face masks in public — a political flashpoint for many — cases are once again increasing across the state.

Putting statistics and politics aside, however, here's a look at some of those who have paid the ultimate price during the pandemic in North Dakota. These are their stories.

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Roger Lehne

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Roger Lehne, 93, was the first North Dakotan to die from COVID-19 on March 27, at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Fargo. He enlisted in the Navy at age 17 toward the end of World War II, and although he wasn't deployed, he served as a medic.

Lehne became a teacher in 1954, teaching in Waubun, Minn., before taking a teaching position in Mahnomen, Minn. He went on to become vice principal at Mahnomen High School, and was known for his firm, yet comedic character.

While suffering from COVID-19, he refused to be put on a ventilator, his niece Julia LaVoy said.

"He showed us all how to live, and he absolutely showed us dignity at death, too," she said, adding that Lehne was in charge of his own life and wasn't afraid to die.

Skoog family
The Skoog family in 2019 included, top row left to right: Kurt Skoog, Kirby Skoog, Karla Dahl, Kevin Skoog, Kory Skoog, with parents Erlys and Kenneth Skoog seated in front. Special to The Forum

Kenneth Skoog, 90, died April 24 of COVID-19 at Eventide Senior Living Facility in south Fargo, three days after his 66th wedding anniversary.

"He said he had 90 good years, and he was ready to go," daughter Karla Dahl said. "But not like this, not like this. If he had died naturally we would have accepted it more easily. But on Good Friday, he told us that nothing compares to the suffering Jesus endured. The suffering of this virus can't even compare to what our Lord suffered."

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"He was North Dakota's number 16," Kenneth's son Kevin Skoog said. "My dad contracted the virus at Eventide, and he died at Eventide. Prior to Karla being by her dad's side, Dad was dying alone, Mom was crying alone and us kids can't do a damn thing about it."

His battle with the coronavirus was a torment on family, especially his wife, Erlys, who could not be by his side. Complicating matters further, family could not be close to Erlys at the same time, fearing the virus could spread.

Earlier in life, Skoog "went AWOL before he joined the Air Force," Kevin said. Honorably discharged in 1950 as a corporal, he returned to the family farm in Christine, N.D., and then worked for the Great Northern Railroad, which later became the Burlington Northern Railroad.

"He was a spark plug," Kevin said.

And he was a man who never said the word goodbye, said Erlys, his surviving wife.

RD Olsen
Richard "R.D." Olsen

Richard D. Olsen, 90, died May 4 of COVID-19, while struggling with Alzheimer's disease.

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Olsen was born in Sisseton, S.D., and was drafted into the Marine Corps during the Korean War. He later became a well-known teacher at Fargo Central and North High schools, retiring in 1988.

He was a lover of old cars, owning up to 150 during his lifetime .

"He was not a textbook teacher; you simply read that in addition to the things he talked about," said longtime teacher and coach Gary Mailloux, who taught alongside Olsen and still coaches cross-country at Fargo North.

Olsen's son Chris says the irony of his father's passing is that it came during such a historic time — a worldwide pandemic.

"He would have found it fascinating," Chris said. "For someone who was a master of history for so long, to lose the ability to understand the change over time was hard to watch."

Helen Nemzek
Helen Nemzek. Special to The Forum

Helen D. Nemzek, 93, died of COVID-19 on May 5 at Eventide on Eighth Care Center in Moorhead.

From a one-room schoolhouse in Nebraska to becoming in 1944 the U.S. Army's Company C sweetheart who "always returned her engagement rings," Nemzek was an adventurer who captured attention wherever she went. Although she died in Minnesota, she was a longtime resident of North Dakota, participating in the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre.

An actress, debater and a radio pioneer, Nemzek was the first woman to win the Missouri Valley Debate Conference. She even went on double dates with "Tonight Show" host Johnny Carson. Among other aspects, it was her radio voice , eloquent and poised, that daughter Laura French, and the world, will remember.

"She loved to read aloud to us. I guess that was her radio voice and a performance outlet for her," French said.

The coronavirus took her quickly, and until the end mostly painlessly, French said. "But I think it would have appealed to her to be part of a global pandemic, the fact that her death will stick in everybody's mind, like 'I remember 2020.'"

French's voice broke down when asked what she would tell her mother now, if she could still hear. She began by telling a story.

"The last couple of days she was basically unconscious. They had started morphine, but she was still just kind of hanging in there," French remembered. "I called this nurse we called Alabama, because that's where she is from, and asked her, 'Can you find a song on your phone for her?' I said 'Unforgettable' by Nat King Cole.'"

"She went in and put her phone next to mother's head on the pillow and she was gone within an hour or hour-and-a-half. She immediately relaxed," French continued. "She said mother took about eight breaths and then she was gone. That was the song we played at my stepfather's funeral. It was a song that was really special to both of them."

"I think I would tell her, 'We remember, we remember you.'"

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Virgil Hilborn atop the arched fence he made by hand. Special to The Forum

Virgil Dale Hilborn, 93, died May 13 from COVID-19 at Rosewood on Broadway in Fargo.

Hilborn was a man who could fix — or make — just about anything. After World War II when station wagons were in high demand, he was commissioned to weld two cars together for a Cadillac dealership. He built a speedboat for fun. Known for his “legendary” snow-shoveling skills, he “maintained the most snow-free driveway on Fargo’s north side,” said his daughter Diane Hilborn.

“When I was a kid growing up I thought my father could do anything, and he pretty much could,” Diane said, adding that he painted, and was also featured in a 1980 Forum article after he built an arched fieldstone wall. “That’s the kind of stuff my dad could just do.”

His parents both lost their first spouses during the 1918 flu pandemic, and he grew up poor, having to help support the family near Jamestown.

“He had the brain of an engineer,” Diane said.

In Virgil’s last days, Diane drove 800 miles to see him, but could only peer through the window. “It was a huge blow not to be able to go to see him. And with his memory loss it was difficult to communicate with him,” Diane said.

Some closure for the family came over the July 11 weekend after they rented a pavilion at Oak Grove Park in Fargo for a celebration of life service with a limited number of people in attendance, all wearing face masks and observing social distancing guidelines. An ice cream truck handed out Virgil’s favorite treats.

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Sgt. Stephen Kenneth Nicklay playing a guitar when younger. Special to The Forum

Sgt. Stephen Kenneth Nicklay, 69, died on May 18 from complications from COVID-19 at Villa Maria nursing home in Fargo.

Nicklay was a Cold War warrior, enlisting in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. Although he couldn't talk about many of his missions while stationed in Germany, he could say his job was to listen in on and translate Russian telephone calls.

"My dad would tell me stories about being on our side and flipping off soldiers on the other side, and they would point their guns at him, but couldn't do anything," daughter Danielle Stewart said.

For years, he planned for his death as he was dealing with multiple sclerosis, she said. Nicklay was passionate about politics and saving the earth. He loved music and played the guitar.

Nicklay and his family never thought he would die from COVID-19. He brushed off the symptoms as allergies after testing negative three times, Stewart said.

Even before he tested positive on the fourth test, Stewart knew something was wrong. He stopped eating, and wasn't interested in music. He wasn't his usual talkative self, she said.

"He had a subwoofer in his room blasting his Neil Young, but when we were there he was very, very tired," she said. Because of his preexisting condition, he refused any machines to survive.

He died late at night, alone, she said. "I knew he didn't want my brother and I there when he passed," Stewart said. "I think he wanted some dignity to do it on his own time. He had his Spotify music up, and the music going loud, and at least he was able to relax and listen to the music."

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Shirley Busche. Special to The Forum

Shirley M. Busche, 93, died of COVID-19 on May 27 at Villa Maria.

Art followed Shirley wherever she went. From the old farmstead, to her patio, to highways commemorating centennials, to the way she dressed, she embroidered, painted with oils, and made flower arrangements.

“She did so many things. And then when she dressed, she dressed in nice clothing and then with jewelry to decorate herself,” said daughter Sharon Busche.

As a young woman, she played basketball with the Women’s Verona Athletic Club. A Sunday school teacher, a 4-H Club and community leader, Shirley needed those she loved around her, Sharon said.

She died from COVID-19, but isolation exacerbated her condition, Sharon said. It was the isolation and the “failure to thrive" that killed her, she said.

“Because she tested positive she was put into an isolation unit with none of her stuff, in a room by herself,” Sharon said. “And they didn’t have any inclination she was near death. I called in the morning and she was still alert, in the afternoon at 3 o’clock they called and said my mom had passed, and I was just shocked.

“When people are put into isolation with dementia they have a failure to thrive,” Sharon said.

“I think the thing that I was most upset with was I could not be there when she died, and that’s what I would like to say to her. ‘Mom I’m so sorry, I couldn’t be here when you died.’ But 100 years from now, or 500 years from now, someone is going to want to know who Shirley Busche was. Her story needed to be told,” Sharon said.

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Wanye and Germaine Link. Special to The Forum

Wayne L. Link , 91, died of COVID-19 on June 5 and his wife of 65 years, Germaine Mae Link , 84, followed just three days later, dying of the same disease.

Together, they raised six children while operating the Kelly Inc. implement business in Wyndmere, N.D.

They farmed, raising a herd of bison. Wayne's favorite bison, Medford, could be seen long after the animal's death. His head was hung at Fort Noks Bar of Gold in downtown Fargo for years.

"Whenever he was in town he would stop in and see Medford," said his daughter Marsha Nygaard. "He would tell everybody that was the best thing he did in life. He loved that herd. They were more like pets than cattle. He had names for them all."

From politics, to business, to being active in the local school district, Germaine and Wayne never slowed down.

Like others during the coronavirus pandemic, family members couldn't be by their parents' bedsides in their final days.

"We were physically cut off from them from the beginning of March. They started restricting probably before most of the nursing homes in the area. That was hard. I think we all accepted it because we thought better days were ahead," Nygaard said.

"Now as time goes on, I feel myself getting a little more resentment," Nygaard said. "These were the last months of their lives and we couldn't be with them. We were trying to save lives; I just wish there was a way."

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