SALINA, Iowa – Albert “Bert” and Carol Stevenson met later in life, after previous marriages that happened years before, at a Kansas restaurant in 2009. The couple loved to camp and go on their pontoon across the lake.
“They said they were just going to date, then my dad ended up moving into the house with her,” said Bert’s daughter Sharolyn Hoffman, of Salina, Kansas.
“They said they were too old to get married, and one day they called me and told me they were getting married. I thought they were joking,” Hoffman said. “Turns out they were not.”
The couple both tested positive for the coronavirus at the end of December and started out the new year battling the virus.
After nearly two weeks of several ups and downs, they died less than two hours apart while holding each other’s hands in bed at the Salina Regional Health Center.
Bert, who had two marriages before finding Carol, met her when he was starting to accept that his Alzheimer’s disease was going to have a major effect on his life.
“Bert was a recovered alcoholic for 39 years, who helped with AA meetings in Salina and was a mentor to a lot of people,” said Nicke Stevenson, daughter-in-law of Bert. “When you asked him how he was doing, he would say ‘Better than I deserve’ every time.”
Carol also had two previous marriages. She has two daughters, both of whom live in the Seattle area.
“My mother was living in the moment, very strong, super sweet, probably the nicest person I ever met,” said Carol’s daughter, Pennie Pickering. “She outlived her first two husbands, and was a caretaker for both husbands. She really had a reputation of being a caretaker. She always had children in her life. She has always been a mother or grandmother and is the favorite aunt to a lot family.”
Together, the couple has more than a dozen grandchildren, and Carol has several great-grandchildren.
“When they were first dating, I was visiting my mother for a couple of weeks,” said Carol’s daughter, Jody Lentz. “She was telling me that Bert was really nervous to meet me and I told her that was kind of funny as I was a little nervous to meet him for the first time.”
The wedding day
The couple married on June 30, 2012, on a warm summer day at Carol’s homestead near Kanopolis Lake in Kansas. Carol was 72, while Bert was 69.
Bert, who sings exactly like Elvis Presley, sang Elvis’ “Hawaiian Wedding Song” that was in the film “Blue Hawaii.”
“Bert always loved to sing Elvis songs, he was good at it. We had a big shindig for them. Carol’s family came from Washington, it was hotter than donut glaze, but it was a great time,” said Hoffman.
Shelli Redden, daughter of Bert, remembers the love and compassion they had for one another.
“He (Bert) would have never let us kids take care of him, especially when he got further into having his Alzheimer’s,” she said. “Carol saved his life, because he allowed her into his life and let her take care of him. He was able to do things that he would not have been able to do if he did not have his partner with him. She loved him unconditionally, she knew what she was getting into.”
Redden said family members asked her several times if she wanted to marry Bert, “not because we did not want her to marry him, but because she was marrying a man who was struggling with this disease and we knew it was going to be hard.”
Family members knew his Alzheimer’s was not going to get any better, but Carol went into it “with her eyes wide open,” Redden said.
“When you were around them, you knew they were in love. The smiles on their faces, the way they treated each other and took care of each other,” Redden said. “Carol really brought all of us back together.”
Traveling to see family and dancing to Elvis
A favorite pastime of Bert and Carol was to travel and see family, so much so they bought a motorhome to help accommodate their travel. Most of the time, their designations were not tourist attractions, but where they had family they could go visit.
“We have family in seven states and all over the country. Their fun pastime was going out with family. She constantly doing things with family, they were going to events. They traveled out here to come see us,” said Pickering.
“It did not matter which restaurant or what environment they were in. If Elvis was playing, they would always get up and dance. Sometimes they would be the only ones dancing, but they were fun to watch,” said Lentz.
How they got COVID-19
The couple went to a family Christmas Eve gathering, and on Dec. 26th they were diagnosed with the coronavirus.
“My mother knew of the risk, but she could not help herself. She had to give presents,” said Pickering. “Christmas is a big deal for her to see family. They were literally 30 days from being vaccinated and they had made it since early March of quarantining … They were in the high age-risk group, with a few prior medical issues.”
Pickering said Carol was warned by several family members that it was not a good idea to go to a family gathering for the holidays, but she went.
Their fight together
After testing positive for the virus, the couple both had their good days and their bad days in fighting the virus.
“Carol’s blood pressure started going up,” said Bert’s daughter-in-law Nicke Stevenson. “Both of them went to the ER together and both of them got released from the hospital. New Year’s Eve, we thought they were doing pretty good.”
Doug and Nicke Stevenson took them make hospital visits and give them as much care as they possibly could.
“It was a rollercoaster ride for the past two weeks. They went to the hospital three times. The staff at the Salina Regional Health Center did a phenomenal job. There were three or four individuals working there that I cannot thank enough. We had a lot of ups and downs,” said Bert’s son Doug Stevenson.
Bert was sedated for three days with COVID-19. The virus made his Alzheimer’s worse than it had been before.
“Dad with the Alzheimer’s did not know who we were. He had lost his awareness of who we were, but I think he knew we belonged to him.” said Redden.
“There were over 100 people in our text chain when they were sick,” said Pickering.
After fighting for a week and a half, the couple died within two hours of each other while holding hands at the hospital – on Elvis Presley’s birthday, Jan. 8.
“I talked to her the night before, they talked about putting her on a ventilator. They both loved Elvis Presley. It is sad, but the way they went was really good,” said Jan Lytle a niece-in-law to Bert.
Redden decided to play music on her phone while in the last few hours with the couple.
“They wanted to go out of the world together and they were able to. It was devastating, but at least they were together,” said Redden.
Carol died when the song “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King played, less than two hours before Bert.
“We were all in the same room as they were holding hands. Dad passed away to a song of Elvis, ‘My Way,’ which was another poignant moment for us. Even though we were not ready for them to go, they both went out on their own songs and on their own way, said Redden.
“There were lots of tears, nurses were crying with us. The nurses were amazing, they helped us every step of the way.”
The family is planning on having a celebration for Bert and Carol on Fourth of July weekend.
“We have family in seven states and all over the country,” said Pickering.
“My dad always said he did not want a funeral, he wanted a party,” said Redden. “They both loved to sing and dance. We cannot do it now, we hope by July things will be safe and we can gather together with family and friends.”
Follow the Salina Journal on Twitter: @salinajournal
Coronavirus Watch newsletter:Sign up for daily updates right in your inbox
Should you wear a mask after getting a COVID-19 vaccine?:5 reasons why the answer is ‘Yes.’