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PORTRAITS OF LIVES LOST

 

Clockwise from top left, Stanford Martin, his sister, Freda Martin-Hernandez; Ruth Ford; Maxine Roybal Lopez; Marcus Pino; Kenneth Walston Sr.; Irma Caskey and Vladimir Keeswood. They are among the first 104 people to die from COVID-19 in New Mexico in the last five weeks. (Photos courtesy of their families)

They were world travelers and blue-collar workers.

Mentors and trailblazers. A high school basketball coach and a classroom grandmother.

Almost seven weeks after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in the state, the virus has felled more than 100 New Mexicans.

They were grandparents, wives and mothers. Husbands and fathers. Sons and daughters.

What follows is a look at some of the lives lost in our state since New Mexico marked its first pandemic death, on March 23.

Vladimir Keeswood, 35

Vladimir Keeswood, 35 (Courtesy of Alison Keeswood)

The last time Earlinda Keeswood saw her son out and about was at the Home Depot in Farmington where he worked.

He told her to go home, worried she would catch the virus sweeping through the country.

About a month later, on April 15 — his 35th birthday — Vladimir Keeswood died of COVID-19.

“All he did was go to work and come home,” Earlinda said. “He wasn’t out a lot because he was concerned about it himself. He took all the precautions. He was worried about me being out there and getting it, and it ended up being him.”

Vladimir was a member of the Navajo Nation, grew up in Shiprock and lived his whole life in San Juan County.

He was a sophomore in high school, playing percussion on a band class trip, when he met the girl he would later marry. This October, the couple was going to celebrate 20 years since they started dating.

“He was one of the funniest people I ever met … ,” his wife, Alison Keeswood, said. “He made me laugh every day.”

In late March, Alison went to Tucson to help her sister, who was recovering from surgery.

She said that when she returned, her husband was lethargic, nauseated and had a high fever. Although he called the coronavirus hotline, he was hesitant to seek treatment and didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him.

But eventually, the two decided to go to the Indian Health Service in Shiprock.

Things escalated from there. Vladimir’s oxygen was very low, and he needed to be put on a ventilator. Then, the doctors decided to fly him to the University of New Mexico Hospital. For the next nine days, Alison said, her heart would stop every time the hospital called. She had also come down with COVID-19 herself, although it was a mild case.

“It was that Wednesday morning, it was his birthday, about 8:30 a.m. that the doctor called me and said his heart was going to stop,” Alison said. “It was the phone call I had been dreading the whole week.”

The family held Vladimir’s funeral, a private graveside service, on April 22 after Alison was out of quarantine.

Now, she’s thinking about what to do with the house the two shared with their three dogs and two cats. She and Vladimir had planned on buying it this year and, after getting into woodworking, had built themselves a patio set and outside bar in the backyard.

“I’m not going to stay in this house,” Alison said. “It was our house, and there’s not an ‘us’ anymore.”

Ruth Ford, 91

Ruth and her twin sister Francis McKinney in Silver City during the Great Depression (Courtesy of Glenn Ford)

Ruth Ford was born into a pioneer family. Her father was a grocer in rural Southwestern mining towns, and her mother was a teacher.

“She’d had a rough time during the Great Depression,” Glenn Ford said of his mother. “They lived in a little house there in Silver City; they raised rabbits to eat.”

Both parents were proud when she went on to graduate from New Mexico State University in 1950, back when the area was “just gravel roads.”

“She was a very determined person,” Glenn said.

The journey ended on April 10, Good Friday, when the 91-year-old died of COVID-19 at the Life Care Center in Farmington. Glenn said she was the first person at the home to exhibit symptoms of the virus.

“You want to run up there and see her one last time, you want to be with her, want to hold her. I did that with my dad,” Glenn said. “… So it was hard.”

Like her late husband, Ruth had planned to donate her body to science, but that wasn’t possible because she died of COVID-19. Her ashes will be spread at the family plot in Glenwood, Arizona.

Ruth Ford (Courtesy of Glenn Ford)

Ruth met her husband of 66 years at NMSU.

The couple jumped around the United States before landing back in Las Cruces in 1959, when her husband got a job as dean of NMSU’s Mechanical Engineering Department.

Glenn said his mother juggled raising him and his sister Dabney, volunteering with such organizations as Planned Parenthood and caring for those close to her heart.

“She was a full-time caregiver,” he said. “She took care of a lot of friends that had cancer and other illnesses — some she lost. She was right there with their families.”

As a parent, Ruth never lost touch with her roots.

The family would cut a Christmas tree from the Gila National Forest every year, take road trips to rural antique shops in search of Native jewelry and visit historic cultural sites.

Glenn said that upbringing influenced their careers as his sister went on to become an archaeologist at Chaco Canyon and he worked for the Forest Service.

Although he will miss his mother’s love for the Southwest and her fresh cinnamon rolls, there is something that strikes deeper in the space of her absence.

“Her love,” he said. “It was always there.”

Marcus Pino, 42

Marcus Pino (Courtesy of the Pino Family)

Marcus Pino, a father of five, had recently celebrated the birth of his first grandchild.

The beloved high school basketball coach contracted COVID-19 and died a couple of days later on April 16, leaving behind a large family and an even larger community of high schoolers, friendly rivals and friends from his years at Alamo Navajo.

“Anything family-oriented, he was always the first one there,” his brother Ira Pino told the Journal shortly after his death. “Whenever anybody needed something, he was usually the first one to call.”

And that was especially true if that something had to do with basketball.

Marcus grew up in Socorro — attending and shooting hoops for Magdalena High School — and moved around central New Mexico before ending up back in the area.

He was not a teacher at Alamo Navajo but began coaching basketball there seven years ago. In February, on Valentine’s Day, he celebrated the 100th win of his career as head coach.

Described as “the ideal players’ coach” by his rivals and peers, Marcus was known for his devotion to his “kids” and for being a “friend of all coaches.”

Buster Mabrey, executive director of the New Mexico High School Coaches Association, said Marcus was at every clinic.

“He always had a smile and would make a point to always say, ‘Hello, and if you need anything, let me know,'” he said.

Audrey Irma Caskey, 84

Audrey Irma Caskey (Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Caskey)

After exchanging wedding vows in the ’50s, Audrey Irma Caskey and Billy, the love of her life, began their Albuquerque adventure.

She was a native of Maryland. He had just graduated from MIT.

“They drove to Albuquerque for their honeymoon, and they loved it out there,” said her younger sister, Judy Degreenia, who still lives in Maryland.

The couple built their lives in Albuquerque, cultivating a 64-year marriage, raising two sons and building strong relationships with friends through a square dancing club, RV club, card games and the Methodist church. He died on July 6, 2019, after a long battle with Parkinson’s. She died nine months later after contracting COVID-19 at La Vida Llena — one of at least 16 patients from the facility to die of the disease. She leaves behind two sons, Russell and Jeffrey, in whom she took great pride.

“The fact that I can’t go there makes it hard,” Judy said.

For now, she takes solace in her memories of her sister, calling her a generous woman who was always helping others.

After their father died, Irma — she went by her middle name — took Judy and their mother on a trip to the Bahamas. Irma wouldn’t let her sister or mother pay for a thing and, if they tried, she got upset.

Irma and her husband loved to travel, taking trips to Africa, England, New Zealand, Australia and Germany, among other places.

“She made scrapbooks about every trip,” Judy said.

Irma loved organizing things and, from time to time, she could be bossy, her sister said with a laugh. She was also good at crafts and kept her house “neat as a pin.”

In her obituary, family members note Irma’s love of shoes and her legendary owl collection.

“She was famous for her shortbread cookies,” Judy said. “She always made them for special occasions, or if someone was sick, she’d take them some.”

Kenneth Walston Sr., 92

Kenneth Walston Sr. (Courtesy of Angela Danessi)

They don’t make them like Kenneth Walston Sr. anymore. A man of his generation.

Soft-spoken and disciplined, you could never catch Kenneth unshaven or in leisure clothes.

“He taught us everything, as far as manners and things kids don’t really learn today,” his daughter, Angela Danessi, told the Journal. “He was just an upright man, he did his job, did it as best he could, looked after his family.”

A resident of the nursing home at La Vida Llena, the 92-year-old died of COVID-19 on April 19.

Angela said she spoke with her father, who was as sharp as ever, hours before he died.

“He started not feeling well and it got worse and worse very fast, and then, that was it, unfortunately,” Angela said. “I obviously thought I’d talk to him again.”

Kenneth, one of six siblings, had a “very, very poor” upbringing in the small town of Noble, Illinois.

He served in the Korean War and went on to graduate from the University of Illinois with a degree in chemical engineering. That degree came in handy as Kenneth set out on a lifelong career with Exxon that took him to oil-rich countries around the world.

“He just had an amazing life considering that he was born in a one-room cabin, like you read about, in Illinois,” Angela said. “From there, he put himself through college and ended up traveling the world, basically.”

He and his wife of 62 years had four children and eventually settled at a Cedar Crest home where they were swept up by the quiet landscape, rich culture and beautiful weather of New Mexico. The couple kept traveling to places such as Egypt, Aruba, Spain and Europe, among others.

Angela said her father had a natural intelligence. She particularly enjoyed talking with him about any topic under the sun, even if they didn’t always agree.

“I will miss his opinion,” she said. “He was very opinionated and it wasn’t always things I would agree with, but I always appreciated being able to ask.”

Maxine Roybal Lopez, 71

Maxine Roybal Lopez (Courtesy of Mariaelena Lopez)

Born and raised in Barelas, Maxine Roybal Lopez was well known and loved.

“My mom was a very social butterfly… ,” her daughter, Mariaelena Lopez, told the Journal. “After she passed, I was really shocked with how many people reached out to me. A lot of them I didn’t know.”

The 71-year-old died of COVID-19 on April 1 at UNMH. No family or friends were allowed at her bedside.

Maxine had been admitted to the intensive care unit on March 25, the day after her birthday.

“A week later, she was gone,” Mariaelena said. “I remember her walking out the door and telling me ‘I’m going to be OK.’ ”

As her mother lay dying, UNMH staff honored Mariaelena’s request to play her mother’s favorite station, K-Love, and have a nurse hold her hand so she wouldn’t “die alone.” Hospital staff gave Mariaelena the chance to speak to her mom one last time by phone.

“I said my goodbyes to my mother and told her it was OK for her to leave, and that I would be alright,” she said through tears. “That was the last time I was able to say anything to my mother … I hope she heard me.”

Mariaelena said her mother will have a proper send-off once the pandemic has passed.

Maxine raised her two children in the same Barelas home her parents had lived in and was active in the community. As a mother, she had a strict, but loving hand.

“She taught me that I’ve got to work hard for the things that I want in life and nothing’s going to be given to me,” Mariaelena said.

After retiring, Maxine volunteered for 10 years with her daughter’s third-grade class at Kit Carson Elementary, where the kids loved “Grandma Maxine.”

A whiz with crafts, she loved decorating and making costumes for the kids — particularly the cheerleading competition that the mother and daughter would spend months preparing extravagant costumes for.

“I’m going to miss her so much. … I don’t know what I’m going to do without her,” Mariaelena said. “That was my favorite part of the year, it’s usually now, in May, when we do it. It’s such a good experience for the kids, but also for me because I got to spend that time with my mom.”

Freda Martin-Hernandez, 38, and Stanford Martin, 31

Freda Martin-Hernandez (Courtesy Tisha Martin)

The Martin family grew up on the Navajo Nation in a house with no electricity or running water, heated by a little wood stove.

In 1998, they followed the oldest daughter, Tisha Martin, to Albuquerque.

“Ever since, Albuquerque has been home, home away from home, we called it,” Tisha said.

Tisha said she, her parents and her younger siblings, and eventually their children and spouses continued living together through the years, and are currently sharing a couple of rooms at an extended stay motel.

But then coronavirus hit. In mid-April, her younger brother, 31-year-old Stanford Martin, died of COVID-19, followed quickly by her younger sister, 38-year-old Freda Martin-Hernandez.

And Tisha fears her job as a secretary at La Vida Llena retirement community was what brought the devastation to her family.

“Did I bring this back to my family?” she asks, through tears. “Is it because of me that my brother is not here? My sister is not here?”

Tisha said that on March 30, she was at work when she started feeling sick with a fever and headache. She went home and got tested for COVID-19 the following day.

Within the week, both Freda and Stanford were at hospitals — one in Albuquerque, the other in Rio Rancho — sedated and on ventilators, fighting for their lives.

“One day they’re fine, they show a little improvement,” Tisha said. “Then, the next day, they took a turn for the worst. It got to the point where we didn’t even want to answer our phones any more because we didn’t want to hear anything bad.”

Stanford Martin (Courtesy Tisha Martin)

Stanford died on April 18. Freda followed four days later, on April 22. The siblings will be buried near Counselor, on the reservation.

Tisha said she was sick for several days, as was her father. Her mother, and Freda’s husband and two children tested positive without ever showing symptoms.

Tisha said she and her sister have always done everything together, calling each other the pet name “cow,” taking the kids to school and texting each other throughout the day if they have to be apart.

She described Freda as a doting mother to her two children, ages 4 and 5, who would always make sure everyone else in the family had what they needed before taking care of herself. She inherited her mother’s gift for bead work, and made earrings and pins to sell.

Stanford, on the other hand, moved out and then moved back in with the family several times over the years — working on oil rigs and, more recently, the graveyard shift at Isleta Casino.

Since he worked at night, he would sleep during the day and Tisha said she would love to watch his 2-year-old daughter crawling all over him, or propping herself up on his back to read.

“I don’t know how to start living without my brother and my sister, knowing that they’re not around,” she said. “I keep expecting them to come out of the other room.”

Journal staff writer James Yodice contributed to this report.

 

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