Faces of those we've lost: COVID-19 causes a landmark 500 deaths on Treasure Coast

Max Chesnes Treasure Coast NewspapersPublished 12:14 PM EDT Sep 17, 2020A nurse. A war veteran. The youngest o

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A nurse. A war veteran. The youngest of 12 children of Portuguese immigrants.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of those as young as 24 and as old as 104, according to the medical examiner's office for Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties, which tracks coronavirus deaths because of the public health risk.

Today, the Treasure Coast hit a landmark of 500 deaths caused by complications of COVID-19 since March, according to Florida health department data released Thursday.

Below are snapshots of the lost lives of 15 victims, a mere 3% of those who have died here, based on medical reports and TCPalm's interviews with their family and friends.

Elizabeth Wyant, 64, Fort Pierce

An avid collector, Elizabeth Wyant hung hundreds of key chains around her home from countries she visited across the world. Others were sent from relatives contributing to the ever-growing collection. 

Key chains from Somalia, Kosovo, Panama, Ireland and the Philippines decorated her house, a tangible road map from adventures past. 

She moved to Fort Pierce six years ago and delivered cars for an automobile auction. Before that, she was a nurse's aide then a security director at a hospital in Auburn, New York.

She enjoyed playing darts and friendly competition, and was so resilient her three children nicknamed her "The Mominator." One child has Asperger's syndrome. 

"She was a real tough woman," said son Jason Hammore. "She was always a good person, when it came down to it."

Just before she died Aug. 10, she gave her children one last piece of advice: Always be prepared. 

Theodore Phinizee Sr., 86, Vero Beach

A deacon at Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Vero Beach, Theodore Phinizee Sr. was a man of devout faith. 

He was a Korean War veteran who continued to serve his community after his military service with financial donations, such as a van for the Gifford Community Center. 

Phinizee managed the kitchen at the Vero Beach Country Club until 1995, a career that emerged after his mother wrote a letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, explaining her son's military service and difficulty finding employment.

Johnson responded with the job opportunity, and Phinizee moved here from New York.

An active American Legion member, Phinizee "was friendly and a giving man," his namesake son said. "He would give to anyone that ever asked, and an all-around great man."

Phinizee died Aug. 5, two weeks after his wife, who was hospitalized after a fall. She tested positive for COVID-19, which was listed as a "contributing factor" in her death. 

James Hardwick III, 88, Hobe Sound

James Hardwick was a dentist for about 20 years, but always had a passion for cooking. So when friends urged him to sell his practice and open a restaurant, he followed through.

Hardwick opened the Log Cabin restaurant in Jupiter in 1978, according to his online obituary. After he closed the restaurant, he moved back to Vero Beach to continue his dental practice. He also once worked for Florida's Department of Health. 

"He was one hell of a fisherman. I liked to call him a catcherman," said son Michael Hardwick, one of three children. 

Hardwick was known as an honest man with plenty of friends. 

"Dad had a real gift for connecting with people. He could make anyone feel special and he made it seem genuine and effortless," Hardwick said. "He touched a lot of lives in all walks and across several generations." 

His favorite expression was: "Things have a way of working out." 

Carmella Aspromonti, 89, Vero Beach

One of Thomas Aspromonti's favorite memories of his mother is her famous lasagna she often cooked for family and friends in New Jersey. 

"She would get so happy to see when people were enjoying it," Aspromonti said. "Overall, she was a very loving mother who put everybody's needs in front of her own." 

On their honeymoon, the Aspromontis drove to Miami. As they passed through the Treasure Coast, the couple vowed to build a house in Vero Beach. Though they didn't build the house on their own, they did move to Indian River County in the mid-1980s. 

Aspromonti was a manager for a company that built semi-conductors for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's space shuttle program, her son said. 

She was known for her immense love for her three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. 

"Mom was a very stylish and caring person," her son said. "And she had a good life." 

Thomas Betelho, 87, Stuart

Born in 1934, Thomas Betelho was the son of Portuguese immigrants who settled in Fall River, Massachusetts. He was the youngest of 12 children and the last surviving Betelho sibling. 

Cutting hair was a family trade and "was in his blood," daughter Alisia Borregard said. He spent much of his career as a barber in Danbury, Connecticut.

Betelho was a devout Christian. 

"He was always playing sports and always taking us to church," she said. "He was just a fantastic man." 

Betelho, who had dementia, moved to Florida as his health declined. His family often took him outside to enjoy the fresh air.

He celebrated his 87th birthday May 1, three months before his death. He went to Treasure Coast Hospice Aug. 2 and died two days later.

"He would always tell me I was his best friend," Borregard said.

Barbara Burroughs, 85, Fort Pierce

Known as "Bari" to her friends, Barbara Burroughs loved to paint. Her greatest love was reading and listening to classical symphony music. 

"She just was a ray of sunshine everywhere she went," said friend Edith "Edie" Jones. "She had an aura about her that was beautiful and peaceful." 

Burroughs was an avid churchgoer who served as a frequent mentor to Jones for nearly a decade, she said. 

"She was the person I would like to be like," Jones said. 

The mother of three boys, Burroughs was active, enjoyed spending time outdoors and regularly went on walks. She once worked at a state print shop in Fort Lauderdale.

Before she died Aug. 5, Burroughs had married, but she never got the chance to live with her new husband.

"I've never heard her say a bad thing about anyone," Jones said. "She was just a wonderful woman."

Edisson Soriano, 24, Vero Beach 

Edisson Soriano, a park ranger at Sebastian Inlet State Park, spent most of his days fishing. He enjoyed watching TV and playing video games in his room. 

He always wore a smile, his family told TCPalm in August. 

If his aunt, Virginia Gerhardt, said she wanted fish for dinner, he always would bring home a fresh catch for the family to enjoy. His favorite was snook. 

"He was such a level-headed person. He would not judge you and he would never choose a side," said friend Lauren Peters, who first met him fishing at the Sebastian park over two years ago. "He was just a great person to talk to about anything."

At 24, Soriano — and St. Lucie County resident Guadalupe Money — are the youngest Treasure Coast residents to die from the virus. 

He died July 2, three days after receiving a negative test result, medical records say.

Read more about Soriano: Park ranger dies 3 days after false negative

Julia Myers, 94, Port St. Lucie 

Among the oldest of 11 children, Julia Myers was a nurse, a natural leader and a practicing Christian. She moved to Florida in November 2017.

"I never heard her shout and say a bad word to anybody," said her sister, Almira Swygert. "She loved life, lived life to the fullest and loved to travel." 

Myers also loved bowling as well as crocheting and sewing, Swygert said. She often served as a motherly figure to her younger siblings. 

"As a person, she was very kind. If you had a problem, she would try and help you out," she said. "She always prayed for us and made sure we did what we were supposed to do." 

Pascual Martinez, 71, Indiantown

A Mayan refugee, Pascual Martinez brought his family to Indiantown in 1982. 

They left behind the war in Guatemala, traveled across Mexico and crossed the border into Arizona. He received his American citizenship in 2011. 

“I remember a story they told me,” daughter Christina Martinez told TCPalm in August. “They left because the soldiers would come in and try to take the little kids. Sometimes the little kids would hide under the beds to not be taken by the soldiers." 

Initially undocumented, Martinez worked in the Indiantown-area orange groves, waking up at 4 a.m. to avoid being spotted by immigration officers, and not returning home until after sunset. He was close to being deported twice, his family said. 

He later bought a bus and picked up other migrant workers all over South Florida. 

“If someone needed a job, they’d say, ‘Oh yes, go to Pascual. He’ll give you a job,’ " his daughter said. “‘As long as you’re willing to work, he’s going to get you a job.’” 

Martinez died July 8. 

Read more about Martinez: Mayan men survive genocide, only to die of COVID

Miguel Pablo, 72, Indiantown

Miguel Pablo, also a Mayan refugee, was a leader in Indiantown.

He was known for his generosity. He was part of a community group that collected a form of life insurance from members. When a member dies, families chip in $35 to help pay funeral costs.

At 62, Pablo retired because of health issues. 

For the remaining decade of his life, Pablo spent every day with his wife, Angelina. They enjoyed watching boxing on TV. They would go for walks for coffee and a doughnut at Dunkin'. On weekends, they would take a drive to the flea market.

Mostly, they sat on the porch, enjoying the sun and each other's company.

Pablo died June 9 at Cleveland Clinic Martin Health.

Read more about Martinez: Mayan men survive genocide, only to die of COVID

Robert Dixon, 80, Lakewood Park

Born in Marianna, Florida, Robert Dixon was a long-distance truck driver for Palm City-based Armellini Logistics. 

Even when he wasn't working, his affinity for travel would lead him on road trips, often to New York.

Dixon was the second-oldest of seven children. Though he had no children of his own, he adored his nieces, Lakenya Russin said of her uncle.  

"He was an everyday person and very strong-minded," she said. "He was all about his family history and family tree." 

Dixon also spent a lot of his free time fishing. He was independent and frequently socialized and hung out with friends, she said.

"Before this pandemic and before he caught the actual virus, he was doing everything on his own. He lived a good life and he was sharp. Looking at him, you would not know he was 80 years old." 

Norman Fleagle, 59, Fort Pierce

Norman Fleagle moved to Florida to ride his Harley-Davidson year-round. 

“He loved to travel,” said son Norman Fleagle III. “He just loved to ride his motorcycle.”

The Pennsylvania native and Navy veteran was a tattoo artist during the 1990s, who at one point owned three shops. His main shop was in Hillsboro, Ohio, about 58 miles east of Cincinnati.

After selling a farm in Ohio in the early 2000s, Fleagle bought a new Ford Harley-Davidson edition pickup truck and a new bike. He traveled south and bought a house in Fort Pierce. 

“Every time he left the neighborhood, he always went past my house honking and waving … always on the bike," said neighbor Dolores Myers. "He was an amazing man." 

His March 26 death was the first from COVID-19 reported on the Treasure Coast. 

Read more about Fleagle: Fort Pierce man is first local COVID-19 death

Novella Brown, 87, Fort Pierce

Novella Brown, born in 1933, celebrated her 87th birthday two months before she died. 

She worked as an inspector at a textile mill in Benton, Alabama. Committed to the job, it was her only workplace in her nearly nine decades of life. 

Daughter Verdell Smith has fond memories of growing up on a small farm with her mother in Alabama. 

"She was an incredibly kind woman," Smith said. " I had a wonderful childhood, and my mother was very nice to us back in the day, when she was raising her children." 

Brown had a stroke 20 years ago. Soon after, she moved to Fort Pierce, and later into the Port St. Lucie Rehabilitation and Healthcare.

She died Aug. 5. Ten days later, her family honored and celebrated her life at a funeral in Alabama. 

Robert Stodgel, 76, Port St. Lucie

Born in 1944 in Charlottesville, Virginia, Robert Stodgel served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. He met his wife, Nancy, in Alexandria. They had two daughters.

In 1982, he moved to Port St. Lucie, where he worked as a drywall finisher. But if the bite was good, he often left work to go fishing.

"He'd rather fish than work any day," his wife said. 

Stodgel, who had Alzheimer's disease, tested positive for COVID-19 on April 28. He died in hospice care May 2. 

Annie Rowe, 88, Vero Beach 

Annie Rowe is remembered by her family as a faithful woman. She was known as "Memaw" to her six grandchildren, 10 great-grandchildren and one great-great grandchild. 

"She was an amazing woman, the strongest I have ever met or would ever hope to become," granddaughter Kelly Rigsby-Quam wrote. "Her faith was unshakable. Her grace unbelievable. She was everything a grandmother could possibly be." 

Rowe's daughter, Judy, said she was a loving mother and a caring grandmother. 

She was admitted to Cleveland Clinic Indian River July 19 and died July 20. 

"Her door was always open and you were never going to leave that house hungry," Rigsby-Quam said. "She never judged, just loved each and every one of us unconditionally." 

Virus-related deaths by county 

Health department data as of Sept. 17 

Martin County: 132

St. Lucie County: 259

Indian River County: 109

Have you lost a loved one to complications of COVID-19? We'd love to tell their story. Contact TCPalm health reporter Max Chesnes at his email max.chesnes@tcpalm.com 

For more news, follow Max Chesnes on Twitter by clicking here. 

Max Chesnes is a TCPalm reporter covering health, welfare and social justice on the Treasure Coast. You can keep up with Max on Twitter @MaxChesnes, email him at max.chesnes@tcpalm.com and give him a call at 772-978-2224.

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