Robert Gehrke: This Utah couple was married for 60 years and died of COVID-19 hours apart

Every person who dies of the coronavirus has a story that should be told.

(Photo courtesy the Christensen family) Joan Yvonne Christensen and her husband Ronald met just out of high school, were married for more than 60 years and died of COVID-19 within hours of each other in December 2020.

It was two nights after Christmas and Joan Yvonne Christensen was fading, bed-bound in an Ogden clinic as COVID-19 was taking her.

Three of her four children and their spouses — dressed in protective equipment — were by her side, holding her hand.

Vonnie, as everyone called her, hadn’t been conscious for a few days, slipping into a sort of coma, her daughter, Linda Guthrie, told me. Yet now, nearing the end, Vonnie, a lover of music, began to sing, so weakly some of it was inaudible. But she was singing.

“Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.”

When morning came, the family had to leave their mother’s side and travel to the Davis County hospital where Vonnie’s husband, Ronald, also stricken with the coronavirus, was scheduled to be removed from life support.

Linda was at her father’s side as was her sister, Cindy, and her brother Lee. Their older brother, Dean, was on a video call from Arizona. As they left the hospital, they got a call that Vonnie, too, had died.

“My mother always said she was never going to leave without my dad,” Guthrie told me a few days after losing both of her parents.

“We all feel like he passed on,” she said, “and then he went and got my mom.”

Ron and Vonnie Christensen are just two of the roughly 1,300 Utahns who died from the coronavirus. Models created by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 300 more could die within the next four weeks. And the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington projects Utah’s death toll could reach 3,000 by April 1.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

The data is so overwhelming that it is easy to lose sight of the human tragedy. Each of these people has a family, loved ones and a story that deserves to be told.

Ronald Raymond Christensen was born in Seattle on Feb. 22, 1937, and grew up with a love of the outdoors. He was one of 10 children, his father was ill and he grew up poor, living off cans of beans and promising his children would have it better.

One Sunday, not long after he graduated from high school, he and his friends were spending an afternoon at Green Lake on the north end of Seattle when a woman with brilliant red hair caught his eye. Ron laid on the charm and got a date.

It wasn’t Vonnie. It was her friend. But when he was visiting the young woman at her apartment, he got to know Joan Warth, “and decided he liked her a lot better,” Guthrie told me.

Warth was born in Pocatello on Aug. 6, 1937, part of a close-knit family. Vonnie inherited a love for music from her mother, a gifted singer who performed on the radio, back when that was done. Vonnie learned to play the piano and the organ.

After high school, she and her friend wanted to spend some time in California with her friend’s family, but the trip fell through, so they went to Seattle to stay with her friend’s aunt.

That’s where she met Ron. On Sept. 13, 1957, they eloped and got married in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It was Friday the 13th and they would joke that it turned out to be good luck.

Ron was in the Army reserves where he learned to fly a helicopter and later he became a pilot for United Airlines.

The family moved a fair amount, spending time in Texas, Colorado, Alabama and Washington. They made sure the kids stayed active and appreciated nature — hiking, skiing and traveling. In summertimes in Washington, they would rent a cabin cruiser and float out to San Juan Island off the coast of Seattle. They’d catch crabs and cook them on a fire on the beach.

On Nov. 11, 1965, less than two years on the job, Ron was the second officer on a flight that started in Chicago, picked up a new crew in Denver before a scheduled stop in Salt Lake City and then on to San Francisco.

On their descent into Salt Lake, the pilot brought the Boeing 727 down too quickly, at an angle three times what was recommended, and the plane smashed into the ground about 100 yards short of the runway, snapped the landing gear and skidded on its belly more than half a mile before bursting into flames.

Ron was knocked unconscious and suffered a fracture in his back. The pilot and co-pilot managed to climb out of the cockpit windows. Ron pushed his way back into the burning cabin to open the emergency exits and deploy the slide, helping passengers escape, according to the federal investigation into the crash.

That fire killed 43 of the 91 people on board, but more would have died if it wasn’t for Christensen .

As the Christensen kids got older, Ron found religion — searched it out, really, Guthrie tells me — investigating all of the faiths he could before converting to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and later served as the bishop of his ward.

They retired to New Harmony in southern Utah in the early 2000s. Guthrie told me her dad loved his country and the Constitution and would teach lessons about the proper role of government. And he loved his wife.

“He was always 100% in everything he did. He adored my mother and when he got older whenever he told us how much he loved her he would always break down and cry,” Guthrie said. “Her life was all about my dad. She was so proud of him. … She called him her greatest accomplishment.”

When Vonnie developed Alzheimer’s, they moved to Layton to be closer to family and eventually moved in with Guthrie’s family.

In mid-December, Vonnie tripped and while recovering from her injury she tested positive for COVID-19. Her health went downhill quickly. Guthrie, her son-in-law, and her dad, Ron, all tested positive shortly after.

Ron seemed to be holding his own against the virus, but two weeks ago, as Vonnie’s condition was deteriorating, he collapsed and was taken to the Davis Hospital where his condition worsened. He was given steroids, antibiotics and an oxygen mask, but doctors said he had pneumonia, his lungs were filling with fluid and he was not able to breathe on his own anymore.

Ron had made his end-of-life decisions known and, with his condition worsening, his family visited him last Monday. They held his hand, told him Vonnie was not doing well and said goodbye.

Not long after, Ron was gone, his family believes, off to reunite with his love, Vonnie.