Farsighted Texans are determined to remember the individuals who died during the coronavirus pandemic. The examples are many, but some stand out, like the woman in this story by John Tufts that ran in the San Angelo Standard-Times on Jan. 12 under the headline “A trailblazer and champion for San Angelo women: Jean Guthrie Ryon, 97, dies from COVID”:
“On a cold and snowy Monday morning, Jan. 11, 2021, the body of Jean Guthrie Ryon was laid to rest at Lawnhaven Memorial Gardens,” Tufts begins before going into a full account of her life. “Ryon, a former city council member, trailblazer and champion for all things San Angelo, died this month after an 11-day battle with the coronavirus. She was 97. In stark contrast to a life that made headlines garnering attention throughout the Concho Valley, Ryon passed away quietly on Jan. 4, 2021, almost without notice or attention from local media. That in of itself is a tragedy.”
During the first full year of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 47,000 Texans have died from the disease. The scourge has disrupted almost every aspect of life in the state: filling basic needs, schooling, governing and mending the already shredded social fabric.
When this is over, however, will we continue to tell the stories of people such as Ryon?
The only comparable modern epidemiological event, the worldwide flu pandemic of 1918-19, came in three waves. Yet some people are still surprised to discover that, back then, Texans already knew about masking, distancing, quarantining and washing hands. For varying periods of time, almost all Texas cities shut down public gathering places.
That deadly flu, which killed more than 40 million people worldwide — some historians say up to 100 million — returned for a third time in early 1919, and authorities once again put those now-familiar protective measures into place.
Why was this medical and social knowledge not passed down? Why were the civic lessons learned in 1918 and 1919 not on the forefront of the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021?
The answer, experts say, might be found in a peculiar form of collective amnesia connected with the way that we think about the shape of the world around us.
“We forget the Spanish Flu — one of the most consequential events of the 20th century — largely because it doesn't fit our sense of what a ‘big’ event looks like,” said Mark Lawrence, director of the LBJ Presidential Library. “We think of disease as a matter for scientists and physicians — part of the natural world. We tend to think of history, by contrast, as what people do. So an event like the First World War draws massive interest from historians, while the flu does not. Only in recent times have historians begun looking at the ways in which natural processes — especially disease and environmental forces — shape human affairs.”
'It changed the world forever'
Historians tell us that as soon as the so-called Spanish flu (named for the country where news of the disease didn't face wartime censorship) ended, people tended to set public memories aside. Not the individual deaths; grief hung over the state like a cloud for years, especially since many of the victims were young adults with years of life presumably ahead of them. In 1918, most of the flu deaths were among those ages 19 to 34.
This quiet sadness was tenderly recorded in playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote’s script “1918,” which was turned into a 1985 movie about the flu’s sudden arrival in small-town Texas.
Yet the disease was almost forgotten in the public sphere. Leaders raised few if any permanent memorials to the dead. They observed few if any ritual anniversaries.
“When I looked for memorials to the flu, I found nothing,” Brian Zecchinelli told The New York Times in 2020 after he and his wife, Karen, underwrote a memorial bench in Barre, Vt., to mark the 100th anniversary of the pandemic. “I mean, there was a plaque in Colorado and maybe something small in Australia, and that was it. I thought, ‘This is crazy. This flu changed America forever. It changed the world forever. I’ve got to do something.’”
Ben Wright, a University of Texas scholar who researches public memory, also thinks that the public remembers disease differently from how we recall things like wars.
“When you compare it to the memorials dedicated to World War II or Vietnam or the Civil War, this is flyover territory,” Wright said. “More Americans died of Spanish flu, 675,000, than soldiers died in the Civil War, 625,000. I think that’s incredible.”
Perhaps understandably, people just wanted to move on. That collective amnesia, however, left future Texans without the tools and the will to deal with a comparable public health disaster.
And the amnesia could return once this coronavirus is conquered.
“The answer depends on how we deal with the tragedy,” Wright said. “Americans don’t like defeat. And getting past the Spanish flu didn’t feel like a victory. It was strapping soldiers struck down by flu, not jabbing a bayonet into a belly. I’m not sure there was collective social infrastructure to process that.”
Wright also contends that the response, or lack of one, was gendered.
“Crises need heroes, and the heroes of the Spanish flu pandemic, when you think about it, were the nurses who cared for the ill,” Wright said about a time when most of the nurses were women.
How Austin's response to the Spanish flu compares to the coronavirus pandemic
Michael Barnes, Austin American-Statesman
Very few artists wrote books or made movies about the flu pandemic — another form of memorial — and as Wright points out, those, too, tended to be gendered.
“While almost nobody wrote about it, two of the best responses came from women,” Wright said. “Willa Cather wrote ‘One of Ours,’ a novel that detailed how the Spanish flu hit the soldiers in the trenches, and that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Texas author Katherine Anne Porter’s magisterial 1939 ‘Pale Horse, Pale Rider,’ a novella about being inside the illness, is considered among the best pieces of Texas literature.”
Celebrated male writers of the time — Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, John Dos Passos, Enrique Maria Remarque — wrote about the action, heroism and tragedy of World War I.
Wright: “Yet for them, the Spanish flu was like a mental blip in the masculine literary mind.”
'It was pretty much totally forgotten'
The lessons of the flu pandemic were not lost on everyone.
Some historians and public health officials kept it steadily in mind, as Pulitzer Prize-winning Texas author Lawrence Wright was reminded while writing “The End of October,” a pandemic novel that he finished months before March 2020.
The thriller predicted in many ways the onslaught of our current illness as well as the domestic and geopolitical responses that followed.
In 1976, while working on a magazine story about the return of the H1N1 influenza, the same strand as the Spanish flu, Lawrence Wright (no relation to UT scholar Ben) read a book by Alfred W. Crosby, a University of Texas professor, about the 1918 flu.
The book was first titled “Epidemic and Peace: 1918” and then retitled, tellingly, in a later edition, “America’s Forgotten Epidemic.”
“He’s the one who retrieved the history of the 1918 flu,” Lawrence Wright told the American-Statesman last spring. “It was pretty much totally forgotten. It is a very compelling history of that disease, how it arose and swept across the globe. Given that I was writing about an outbreak of the same strand of the flu, it made a real impression on me.”
While he was working on "The End of October," the national public health officials that he contacted on scientific background also were among those few who remembered the Spanish flu, as well as SARS and MERS, which are more closely related to COVID-19.
“They all knew,” Lawrence Wright said. “They had been thinking about it their entire careers.”
Spanish flu 1918: How cities fared in containing killer virus
The 'forgotten epidemic' in Texas
On March 7, 2020, just as a lockdown for the current pandemic was being discussed seriously for the first time, the American-Statesman published a look back at the Spanish flu years in Austin and, more broadly, in Texas.
This article documented how the flu's first wave, during early 1918, a year after the U.S. entered World War I, was almost completely ignored by the media — sometimes even mocked — under the constraints of wartime censorship. As in 2020, some leaders did not want to panic the public.
Then in early October 1918, the disease struck again, with a vengeance, especially among soldiers gathered at Texas military bases. Camp Mabry, for instance, went from one reported case in late September to 900 cases in early October. Similar big outbreaks occurred at Fort Bliss near El Paso, the military bases near Corpus Christi and elsewhere in the state.
That fall, acting Gov. R.M. Johnson took charge of the state’s response. Gov. W.P. Hobby, it turned out, had been taken ill and had retreated to Beaumont to recover.
Although no Texas city barricaded its boundaries, as happened in Colorado, several closed down for weeks at a time.
A good deal of the coverage in El Paso dealt with the escalating crisis at Fort Bliss, where 1,250 cases had been logged by Oct. 9, 1918. Public gatherings were canceled in the first week of October. As in the current pandemic, much concern was expressed about overwhelmed health facilities and personnel: “Two of Three City Hospitals Unable to Accept more ‘Flu’ Cases; Doctors Work Overtime,” reads a headline published in the El Paso Times.
El Paso schools were converted into hospitals. Indoor funerals were banned. Special attention was paid to the hard-hit Hispanic community.
Many newspapers ran regular advertisements — disguised as news articles — for dubious treatments for the flu. Other stories attributed the rise of the disease to targeted nationalities. Many scholars today believe that the so-called Spanish flu in fact began in Kansas.
As would happen 100 years later, part of the problem was how to persuade the public to do the right things. By Oct. 30, a report on the outbreak in Texas cities, without data from rural areas, counted a total of 106,978 cases of influenza, 3,012 cases of pneumonia and 2,181 deaths. These figures included 576 new cases of influenza, 47 new cases of pneumonia and 52 new deaths during the most recent 24 hours. Despite these high numbers, the state government greeted this data as an indication that the worst was over.
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University campuses, militarized for the war, became hotbeds of the flu. Classes were dropped, and students sent home. Football games were canceled, postponed or played without spectators. State schools were hit hard, too: the Insane Asylum, the Texas School for the Deaf and Dumb and the segregated Texas Deaf, Dumb and Blind Institute for Colored Youth.
More than half a million Americans died because of the flu pandemic, 25,000 of them Texans. Yet by 1920, references to the pandemic had virtually disappeared from Texas papers.
As Chuck Lanehart accurately wrote in a 2020 historical retrospective for the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, “The Spanish flu epidemic was over, making way for the Roaring Twenties.”
‘No one has been trained for this much death’: In a COVID-19 ICU, hospital workers struggle with trauma and grief
Will we remember?
During the previous pandemic, Texas newspapers published short vignettes about those who fell ill or died of the flu. Even in abbreviated form, these can touch the heart.
This notice ran in the Austin Statesman on Oct. 28, 1918: “Ed Yeargin, who has been ill some time with influenza and very low since last Saturday, died at 2 a.m. this morning. He was a young man, but 25 years of age, and had a great many friends who regret to learn of his premature death.”
During the past year, Texas newspapers have recorded hundreds of personal tragedies behind the 47,000 COVID-19 deaths.
‘More deaths than anyone should ever have to see’: Life and death inside a COVID-19 ICU
Sandy Hooper and Jasper Colt, USA TODAY
Among the first national figures to die from COVID-19 was Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, 81, who grew up in Corpus Christi, and was closely tied to the theater scene in Austin, especially Zach Theatre, which produced many of his plays.
“I feel absolutely gutted over the loss of Terrence McNally today,” Zach artistic director Dave Steakley told the Statesman in March 2020. “He has been such an enormous inspiration in my life, personally and professionally. He is the playwright who put the lives of gay men on stage and help lead us through the AIDS epidemic with compassion, great humor and cathartic loss as a community."
The Statesman also told the story of Tejano legend, Guadalupe "Shorty" Ortiz, 78, who died of COVID-19 in September.
“My dad would pick somebody, like a woman, to sing to,” Ortiz’s son, Anthony Ortiz Sr., told the Statesman in September. "He wouldn’t just choose randomly, but he’d scan the crowd in search of someone that he could really touch and he would pick a song and sing to them. Let's say eight times out of 10, they would start crying.”
In a roundup of COVID-19 victims, the El Paso Times reported on Baudelio Sanchez, 89, a father, grandfather and great-grandfather who left behind 14 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren and two great-great-grandchildren. He was “a strong, healthy and active man until the virus took him from our lives,” his obituary stated.
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times mourned the loss of Dr. Antonio Guzman, 54, an esteemed physician credited with helping shape the careers of countless health care personnel. As director of Corpus Christi Medical Center's internal medicine residency program, he helped train hundreds of physicians and nurses, said Dr. Sudhakar Papineni. “We lost a dear friend, and our partner, a human I worked with side by side,” he told Nueces County commissioners in July.
In a year-end grouping of short obituaries, the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal hailed Rory Thomas, the executive director of Lubbock Impact, a charity group, who died Oct. 17 after battling COVID-19 in the hospital since Oct. 5. She was 58. Friends and family described Thomas as a caring woman who loved to serve others. In announcing her death, Lubbock Impact encouraged others to follow Thomas' lead and be the change. "Rory would not want us to be sad, rather, she would want us to continue making Lubbock a better place," reads the statement. "One that knows His Name and calls him Lord. Undoubtedly, her story is not over."
At times, the mere outlines of a life call out for more details.
“Maria Sargent, 91, raised five children,” the El Paso Times succinctly records. “She served in the U.S. Air Force in the early 1950s and later worked for 20 years at the U.S. Postal Service, where she retired as a supervisor at age 60. She was a resident at the Ambrosio Guillen Texas State Veterans Home. She died May 22.”
The media has paid special attention to the young victims.
“When 21-year-old Chris Miller arrived on Austin College's campus in Sherman this fall, he was a 300-pound, 6-foot-tall young man with his entire future ahead of him,” reads a story in the Sherman Herald Democrat. “On Dec. 18, Miller died at the age of 22 after a months-long battle with COVID-19 and complications. Just before Christmas, Miller's sister Honoria Bush, his mother Esteria Miller and the family attorney Paul Stafford reminisced about the young AC senior's life and his passing. Bush said her brother was very active at college. A statement on AC’s website said he was an active member and officer of Chi Delta Eta Fraternity, a little brother of Kappa Gamma Chi sorority, and member of Black Expressions.”
Future public memory about COVID-19 — and those lost to it — will be in the hands of civic leaders who make the policies; the artists and historians who write the books and make the movies; and the media that remind readers and viewers of its impact on communities. Yet it will also be in the hands of a public willing to set aside the temptation to defer to collective amnesia.
“The American public tends to be very myopic when it comes to the epidemics we face, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear,” said Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the LBJ Foundation. “While we memorialize wars and the great toll they have on human life, we don’t remember those who succumb to public health crises in the same way — even though the number of fatalities behind them are often well beyond those we lose in war. Part of it has to do with the fact that soldiers have put their lives on the line in the name of their country, which carries the air of valor, patriotism and personal sacrifice, as opposed to those who die from disease due solely to health vulnerabilities.”
“Pandemics are alienating,” scholar Ben Wright said. “They do not produce the solidarity, however contrived, that you find in wars. That prevents communal memory from forming in the same sort of way.”
Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.