COVID-19 in Portage County: Documenting a year of loss

By: Sara Crawford, Alex Gray, Molly Heideman, Alina Howard and Maria McGinnis

Out of Ohio’s 1,083,609 cases of COVID-19, Portage County, with a population of more than 160,000 people, accounts for 12,872 of the total cases. 

According to data from the Ohio Department of Health’s (ODH) COVID-19 dashboard, the first confirmed Covid-19 related hospitalization was on March 5, 2020 and the first death with COVID-19 listed as the cause was on March 29, 2020. Over the course of the 14 months the pandemic ran rampant, Portage County has seen 767 COVID-19 related hospitalizations and 203 deaths. 

Though Portage County’s numbers appear small in comparison to nearby counties like Cuyahoga’s 112,117 cases and 2,115 deaths, 203 lives lost is still a sobering number. That’s 203 families missing mothers, fathers, children, siblings, grandparents and friends. 

The pandemic has left those who lost loved ones to COVID-19 with a void in their life; a death so unexpected and sudden leaves them with immeasurable amounts of pain. 

Dorothy Kelly

1930-2021

Dorothy Kelly, courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan.
Dorothy Kelly married her husband Ira at age 16, as seen in this photo. The couple spent 47 years together before his death in 1994. Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan.

Dorothy Kelly was a fighter. Described by her daughter Jennifer Sullivan as hard-working and driven, she never let obstacles get in her way. Kelly, a Kent resident since 1948 and former food service manager at Kent State University, had a passion for cooking. 

“[She] worked with the University School for a dollar an hour… she went on campus and was at Prentice for the rest of her time,” Sullivan said. “They fixed breakfast, lunch and dinner from scratch every day, and she did all the ordering, 11 hours a day, six days a week. And she could still come home and whip up a meal for however many, truly a gift.”

Kelly grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, where she learned regional cooking from the area. 

“[Cooking] was kind of her love language,” Sullivan said. “She loved to cook and have everybody over and everybody, to this day, everybody still talks about it.”

One of Dorothy Kelly’s favorite things to do was cook for her family. Courtesy of Jennifer Sullivan.

Kelly had four children, 11 grandchildren and several great and great-great-grandchildren. She died on Jan. 13, 2021, at the age of 90 due to complications from Covid-19. Kelly married her husband Ira Kelly in 1947 and spent 47 years together before his death in 1994. 

“She came from a long line of strong women and longevity, her mother was almost 102 when she died, so we fully expected Dorothy to go another 10 years, had it not been for Covid,” Sullivan said. “She had no preexisting conditions at all. She had no heart problems, no kidney problems, none of that.”

Kelly loved adventure and was a frequent traveler. Sullivan said her mother documented her trips through photography and has enjoyed going through her mother’s old photographs. 

“[My favorite picture] is probably from the Holy Land, she was riding a camel as if she did it every day,” Sullivan said. “They did a tour up to Masada… on the top of the mountain, and then she got baptized in the River of Jordan, and that was just really cool. I know that meant a lot to her to be there where Jesus was baptized.”

“I mean, she never gave up. They worked hard and would do whatever they had to do and gave us a good work ethic,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan and some of her family were able to stay with Kelly while she was in the hospital. She is grateful for the hospital staff who cared for her mother.

“So we just kind of hung out with her and sang and showed her pictures and played songs,” Sullivan said. “And she talked to everybody, all her sisters and our grandchildren. We Facetimed them and… she just kind of gently went. It still feels like a dream, it really does, a bad dream.”

Sullivan said the pandemic is “nothing to laugh at” and hopes people recognize the severity of COVID-19. 

“I was not ready to lose her,” Sullivan said. “I hope she’s dancing in the streets in heaven and lined up with all those who have gone before.”

Robert “Barney” Ross

1951 – 2021

Robert “Barney ” Ross 
9/4/1951-1/13/2021

Robert Ross, or Barney, as most people knew him, was a caring and outgoing man who “just loved life,” as his daughter, Kim Grimes, said. 

Typical Sunday during football season! Especially Browns vs Steelers!  He was a huge Browns fan! Photo courtesy: Kim Grimes

Ross had a ‘68 Camaro he used to drag race and loved to tinker in the garage. His wife of 39 years, Barbara, also has a ‘68 Camaro, they called the cars the “twins,” and the pair would often take them to car shows. 

For several years, Ross worked in management with the State of Ohio Department of Liquor Control and eventually opened his own liquor agency in Portage Lakes, called Lakes Beverage. Grimes said he ran Lakes Beverage for about 20 years until he sold the store and retired. 

Outside of his time tinkering with his car, Grimes said Ross was always taking care of others, especially people in their neighborhood. Grimes said there’s a woman in her early 80s who lives across the street from Ross and Barbara. The woman’s husband died a few years ago and Ross would often step in to help her out when she needed it. 

“This was typical of him, every day he would get up, get her newspaper, take it up to her door, then wait for the mail to come, take it up to her door, take her trash can down, take her recycling can down. That was just what he did,” Grimes said. “And he loved that.” 

Grimes said Ross was a real family-oriented man who loved her children — his grandchildren — Allysen and Hunter and acted as their number one cheerleader. 

Ross died due to complications from COVID-19 on January 13, 2021. He was 69-years-old.

“It’s funny because I guess we didn’t realize how he touched people until after he died,” Grimes said. “The outpouring of support we got was just amazing. He was just a real-life of the party, would do anything for you. It didn’t matter what time of day or night, if you called him, he would be there. Whether it be a ride home from somewhere, if your car broke down, he always had the tool to fix it. Everybody in the neighborhood knew they could go to him and he would have what they need.”

“It’s funny because I guess we didn’t realize how he touched people until after he died,” Grimes said. “The outpouring of support we got was just amazing. He was just a real-life of the party, would do anything for you. It didn’t matter what time of day or night, if you called him, he would be there. Whether it be a ride home from somewhere, if your car broke down, he always had the tool to fix it. Everybody in the neighborhood knew they could go to him and he would have what they need.”

Grimes remembers when she was younger and she’d be walking in a parking lot of a store with Ross and her mom, that if there was a lone screw lying in the parking lot, he would always pick it up.

“My mom was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘You never know who might need this,’” Grimes said. “And sure enough, when somebody would need something like that he would be like, ‘OK guys, I told you so.’ But now we’re playing heck for it because we’re trying to go through his stuff in the garage and, oh my gosh, my mom said he was an organized hoarder.”

Grimes said everything in his garage is labeled with his label maker. She said the belt broke on her parents’ lawnmower a couple of weeks ago, so her husband was working on it for her mom and when they got the manual out, sure enough, in Ross’ handwriting were the exact sizes for all the tools needed and a step-by-step on how to change the belt. 

Grimes said one of her favorite memories of Ross is from when she was 10 and really wanted a new bike, but her family didn’t have the money for it at the time. But Ross had an older car he sold in order to buy Grimes a new bike. It’s memories like that, Grimes said, and how caring and generous her father was that stick with her. 

Our immediate family out for dinner. Allysen, Kim Grimes, Barb Ross. Hunter Grimes. Barney Ross, Andy Grimes. My kids, husband, & parents. Photo courtesy of Kim Grimes.

“When Allysen would come home from Bowling Green for the weekend, he would always check her tires and check her oil before she’d go back,” she said. “That’s one of the things that she said she misses a lot too is, ‘Gosh, now I’m going to have to check my own tires.’ It’s stuff like that, you don’t think about it at the time.”

Though she has several memories with Ross that she’s fond of, Grimes said she misses their family dinners the most. An only child, she lives about five houses up the street from her parents, and they’d often get together for dinners and bonfires.

“It was like family time,” she said. “That’s what I miss the most.”

Since its start, the pandemic and questions around its legitimacy has been a divisive issue. But like the 203 families who lost a loved one in Portage County, Grimes and her family saw the impact of the virus up close, and she just wishes people would take it seriously. 

“Even to this day, over a year later, you hear people say, ‘Oh, it’s not real. It’s the government. It’s a hoax.’ My entire family had COVID, myself included,” she said. “Not only did we experience firsthand the symptoms and struggles of it. We have friends also who have lost [people]. Last June, one of my daughter’s good friends lost his dad to COVID. I remember going to the funeral, never in a million years, thinking that seven months later I would be going through the same thing.”

Though Grimes said Ross wasn’t her biological father, he was the only father she ever knew and he always treated her like his own. She said if she could tell him something today, it would be “thank you for everything.”

“Thank you for loving me unconditionally and always being there,” Grimes said. “It didn’t matter what stupid thing I did when I was younger or even my kids, he was always there. He was always there to lend an ear, support and when you needed a stern talking to you got it, but always with love. It was never just like being a jerk, even with my kids, just always there for them and for not being technically related. You would never have known that he wasn’t my real dad, you never would have known that.”

“Thank you for loving me unconditionally and always being there,” she said. “It didn’t matter what stupid thing I did when I was younger or even my kids, he was always there. He was always there to lend an ear, support and when you needed a stern talking to you got it, but always with love. You would never have known that he wasn’t my real dad.”

Jane “Janie” Cheatwood

1930 – 2020

Janie Cheatwood, Courtesy of Nilla Cheatwood

Jane “Janie” Cheatwood was, as two of her daughters put it, a feisty woman. Throughout her life, she always made people laugh and always remained positive, no matter the situation. She was a breast cancer survivor and continued to be a fighter throughout her life.

Cheatwood, and her second husband. Courtesy of Nilla Cheatwood.

“She loved to dance,” said one of her daughters Becky Miller. “She loved Tom Jones and she had a CD player in the nursing home. Her and I would dance to Tom Jones and I’m like, ‘Mom, this is a dirty song’ and she would just giggle.” 

Cheatwood was the youngest of 14 kids. Growing up poor in Virginia on a dairy farm her mother worked on, she would always tell stories about laying in bed, looking up at the ceiling and seeing the stars poke through cracks in the roof. 

She got married to her first husband in Virginia, having her first four children. Her first husband was abusive, so she ran away to Ohio and divorced him. She then remarried in Ohio, where she had Miller and her sister, Nilla Cheatwood. 

Cheatwood died on Dec. 24, 2020, from complications due to Covid-19. She was 90-years-old.  

She worked at the Kent A&W Restaurant for 35 years and was a prompt and dedicated employee. She always made sure everything was clean and organized in the restaurant and would often complain that the “young kids” were not cleaning the counters properly. 

Over the 35 years, Cheatwood was a motherly figure for many of the employees. She would be the one they would turn to and talk about what was going on in their personal lives, as not only was she a good listener, but a good secret keeper. Something Nilla laughed about, saying that was not passed down to her. 

“They always looked at her as their mother and confided and told their personal stories about their boyfriends or home life and she always was known as a good listener,” Miller said. “She would keep your secret she was really good secret keeper.”

For both Cheatwood and Miller, one of their favorite memories of their mother was their Saturdays when they were growing up. Every Saturday, their mom would go out earlier in the day. When she was out, the two sisters were dancing to “American Bandstand,” supposedly cleaning. When she would come home, she would always bring back something new for them, often new clothes. Then, for the rest of the night, the three of them would curl up on the couch with “Superhost” on, a local TV personality on WUAB, as he would introduce that Saturday’s scary movie. 

Cheatwood and Miller’s granddaughter. Courtesy of Miller

“[We] would cuddle up on the couch and I would lay with my head up on her hip,” Miller said. Cheatwood then laughed, saying it was always a fight for whose turn it was to lay their head on her hip. 

Every single night, Cheatwood would talk with her mom on the phone. “I miss saying goodnight to her,” she said. 

Miller often looks back at videos she filmed during her visits to her mother’s memory care unit. 

“I have memories of her walking in her walker outside around the sidewalk and my granddaughter is pushing her stroller with her little baby,” Miller said. ”My granddaughter was bossing my mom around, like, ‘No, go sit over there’ and my mom’s like, ‘OK, but that’s my coffee.’” 

Both Miller and Cheatwood emphasized the fact that their worst nightmare came true when their mother got sick. They would see people around them getting sick with COVID, friends and family losing relatives. Their fear was that their mother would get sick and the nightmare became a reality. But Cheatwood wants people to remember her mother for who she was and not just as a COVID patient.

“I just want everyone to know that she was here,” she said. “She was loved and she was funny and feisty and not just a number.” 

“She was super proud of us and she let you know it,” Miller said. “Yes, she was,” Cheatwood said.

Linda Clements

1943 – 2020

Linda Clements. Photo provided by April Clements

The Christmas trees that Linda Clements made were works of art. As her daughter, April Clements would say, they looked like they belonged in a Macy’s. Clements would use stuff from Goodwill and from different donations to make the most extravagant tree. “She did so much with so little,” Clements said.

For Clements, she remembers looking at the Christmas trees for hours on end. “I just remember the most beautiful Christmas trees and I for hours would just literally lay under the Christmas tree, staring up at the lights and the cool things,” she said.

Clements died in early Dec. 2020 from COVID-19.