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Family’s losses a cautionary tale for others

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — If she could just talk to you, tell you, shake you, make you listen to her, maybe, she thinks, you’d understand how crucial it is to wear a mask, stay home as much as you can, wash hands even more than that.

You’d understand how easy it is for COVID-19 to slip into your lives and devastate your whole family. “If you could just step into my shoes,” Shelley Plath says, “maybe you could feel what we have lost.”

John Lawrence Plath (Courtesy of Shelley Plath)

And maybe, she hopes, you’ll understand how the next loss could be yours.

They lost John Lawrence Plath, Shelley’s father-in-law, first to COVID-19 on April 8.

They lost Johnny Walter Plath, Shelley’s husband, to COVID-19 on May 8.

In between, six more family members plus a home health care worker tested positive for the virus, each experiencing symptoms to varying degrees, despite all the precautions and all the testing and because that very first test result came too late.

The tragic cautionary tale of the Plath family begins in happier times when a bright young man from Topeka, Kansas, found his way to New Mexico, graduated from Albuquerque High in 1946, enlisted in the Marines, married Naydene, raised five children and became a pioneer in the art of creating neon signs.

Two of those children inherited John Plath’s love of neon signs and carried on his business, Southwest Outdoor Electric, after he retired.

Johnny Plath works on a rotosphere he helped restore from the El Commodore restaurant in Moriarty. The image is from a PBS documentary called “Route 66: The Neon Road” in which Plath is one of the featured neon artists. (Courtesy of New Mexico Route 66 Association)

One of those children was Johnny, the eldest son, who in later years served as the president of the New Mexico Sign Association and as an active member of the New Mexico Route 66 Association, devoting his time and expertise toward restoring many of the iconic neon signs that glow along the Mother Road.

“All the neon that was on the street, it rivaled Las Vegas,” he told a KRQE reporter, a sparkle in his eyes, at the relighting of the refurbished De Anza Motor Lodge sign on Central in January. “For the brightness, the intensity, the motion, the animation was just a wonderful sight to behold.”

Those were the signs John and Johnny Plath loved. They were the perfect metaphor for father and son, both who were bright, intense, animated, wonderful.

When John Plath, 91, came home from a rehabilitation center in early April, there were different signs that something was wrong. Shelley Plath said the family asked that he be tested for COVID-19 because he had a fever three days before his release, but the request was declined because the fever had abated.

Yet without a test, few home health workers agreed to care for the elder Plath. So Johnny Plath, a sister and her husband settled in to take care of him.

Five days later, John Plath – known as Pepa to his 11 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild – was tested for COVID-19. He died that same day.

The result came back positive after his death.

Concerned about their contact with the virus, Johnny Plath, his sister and brother-in-law were also tested.

The first tests on Johnny came back negative, Shelley Plath said.

But Johnny, who had been a healthy and active 68-year-old just weeks before, deteriorated quickly. He remained on a ventilator in the hospital for the next 16 days but was taken off the ventilator when it appeared he was rallying.

Three days later, his condition worsened. The last test came back positive for COVID-19. He died a day later, his family left to say goodbye in a video chat.

Plath’s sister and her husband also tested positive for the coronavirus but survived. Another sister and a sister-in-law also became ill with COVID-19 as did Johnny and Shelley Plath’s daughter. All survived.

Johnny Plath gets a kiss from his wife, Shelley Plath, a woman he often referred to as the “blond girl that runs my life.” Plath, 68, died May 8 of COVID-19 complications. (Courtesy of Shelley Plath)

Shelley Plath had tried to be so careful not to become contaminated with the virus. Since March 23, she had tried to isolate herself from the family, afraid she would become infected and give the illness to her 91-year-old mother.

But the virus got her, too.

“I had a fever for two days, body aches, no coughs,” she said. “But I never went around my mother again after that.”

She couldn’t bear to lose anybody else.

Johnny Plath poses at the base of the restored De Anza Motor Lodge, one of the last projects the longtime maker of neon signs was involved with as a member of the New Mexico Route 66 Association. The De Anza sign was restored in January.

The obituaries for both men were published together in the Journal on May 17. A reader spotted the obituaries and wrote to me, noting that father and son had both died on the 8th, a month apart. He was especially moved, he wrote, by the selfless sacrifice of a son who took care of his father, unknowingly infecting himself with a virus that killed him.

“What a hero,” the reader wrote.

Because of COVID-19, there can be no funeral gathering, no mourning together. A virtual memorial service via Zoom was planned for Saturday. The family has suggested that planting a tree in honor of father and son would be a nice way to remember them both.

But remember them also in the brilliant glow of neon that colors Route 66 like a rainbow in the night. Remember them by wearing a mask, by staying home as much as you can, by washing your hands even more than that.

Remember them in the words of Shelley Plath who asks you to imagine, to feel, what she has lost.

Take it all as a sign.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793,, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.


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