Karen “Hazel” Benson, 74: Trailblazer who cared for others

Karen “Hazel” Benson had an abiding compassion for others that never waned, even as she waged a fierce battle with COVID-19.

Just days before her death at York Hospital on June 20, 2021, she dashed off a note to someone who had disparaged gay people.

Karen “Hazel” Benson

“Everybody was equal in her eyes,” recalled her husband, Peter Benson. “She was a friend to all.”

Adamant about wearing masks and getting vaccinated, she tested positive for the virus three weeks after her second shot, her husband said. State health officials have reported 40 COVID deaths among more than 870,000 people who were fully vaccinated as of last week.

Married soon after high school, the Bensons enjoyed a 55-year love affair before she died at age 74.

He called her Hazel for the personality traits she shared with her beloved grandmother. The nickname stuck. He dubbed their home “Hazelville” for the way she nurtured everyone in her orbit with kindness and a ready smile.

She lived most of her life in New Hampshire, where she was born, raised two sons, was active in civic groups and worked at the Granite Bank. A woman ahead of her time, she rose through the ranks from installment loan secretary to senior vice president.

“She blazed a trail back then,” her husband said. “But she was first and foremost a family person.”

The couple retired to Wells in 2002. She loved traveling, doing crossword puzzles, golfing and doting on her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She also was an accomplished seamstress, creating beautiful quilts for family members, friends and charitable groups, and sewing masks that she donated to the Wells Police Department.

“She was just a good person,” her husband said.

— Kelley Bouchard

Edmond Boucher, 75: A passion for family and literacy

Edmond Boucher was passionate about a lot of things: the New York Yankees, literacy, public service and politics. But perhaps more than anything, he was passionate about being there for his family.

“While sometimes a practitioner of  ‘tough love,’ he was always there when you needed a hand, an ear, and regularly would also be there when you didn’t realize you needed to hear something,” his family wrote in his obituary.

Edmond Boucher

Boucher grew up in Old Town, became a proud member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. and married his wife, Janice. After a debilitating accident, he became a stay-at-home father to his three children. When Boucher was 35, his son Lance called him out for not reading the words on the page of a storybook, prompting Boucher to work with literacy volunteers to learn to read. He spent years traveling the state to share his story about learning to read as an adult.

“Any time he saw a written word, he read it. He inspired his grandkids to do the same. That love of education really stuck with us,” Lance Boucher said.

In recent years, Edmund Boucher delighted in being “Papa” to his four grandchildren, who his son said fueled him to keep going in the last decade of his life.

Boucher celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary in November 2020. But last year he missed out on birthdays and seeing his grandchildren because he took COVID precautions so seriously, his son said.

Boucher tested positive for COVID-19 the day before he was scheduled to be vaccinated. He died Jan. 15, 2021, at a Bangor hospital. He was 75.

“He was so excited to be vaccinated,” his son said.

— Gillian Graham

Cheryl Bush, 68: Loving grandmother

Cheryl Bush loved visits to Boothbay Harbor, getting her hair done and the TV show “I Love Lucy.”

She loved animals so much that if she saw a dog being walked on the other side of the street, she would stop traffic so she could cross the street to greet the dog. And she especially loved her family, including her 12 grandchildren.

Cheryl Bush

“She was the kindest and most generous person I knew,” Bush’s daughter, Kim Dunham, said in an email Tuesday. “She would do anything for anybody even if that meant she went without.”

Born Cheryl Ann Herring in Dover-Foxcroft, Bush graduated from Piscataquis Community High School and went on to obtain her associate’s degree in business from Beal College in Bangor, according to her obituary. She and her husband, John Patrick Bush, raised three children together, first in Dexter and later in Sangerville.

In February, Bush fell ill with COVID-19. She was sent home from a local hospital to recover, but instead became sicker and was rushed to Eastern Maine Medical Center and placed in intensive care. Even when she was on a ventilator, Dunham said, the family expected Bush would recover as she always had with previous health issues. Instead, the disease progressed and her family eventually had to make the decision in March to take her off life support. She was just a few weeks shy of her 69th birthday when she died on March 25, 2021.

“The hardest part, she was totally isolated … we couldn’t go to see her, visit her, or hold her hand,” Dunham said. “The best we could do was FaceTime or call on the phone as they propped the telephone up to her ear.”

Dunham said she wants people to know the seriousness of COVID. “Unfortunately, people don’t pay attention to the seriousness of it until it is at their own back door.”

— Rachel Ohm

Patricia Caron, 74: Cared for family, friends

Among the birthdays and other important dates she wanted to remember, Patricia Caron’s calendars were filled with notes about friends’ appointments.

“Matt, physical be there,” said a note for April 20. On June 2, 2020: “Sissy, neurology.”

Patricia Caron, right, with her daughter Karen Letourneau.

“Her calendars are all marked up,” her daughter, Karen Letourneau of Wales, said in June. “Full of stuff for other people. It’s just what she did.”

Caron died May 13, 2021. She was 74. She tested positive for the virus more than a month after receiving the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine, making her one of only 40 people to die from the disease in Maine after being vaccinated, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

Caron, of Lewiston, was a loving mother of four children and had nine grandchildren. She raised a grandson with intellectual disabilities and was his caregiver until she died. She worked in convenience stores in the Lewiston-Auburn area for several years.

“She was the kind of mother who did everything she could to protect her kids,” Letourneau said. “She always made sure we had everything we needed.”

Letourneau expressed frustration Tuesday about the number of people out shopping without masks. She said after her mother died, she had a T-shirt made that said, “COVID killed my fully vaccinated mom.”

“I wore it everywhere I went for the next two months,” her daughter said, reflecting on her life without her mom. “I think about her every single day. I’ll never see her or hear her voice again. I have this immediate flip in my belly. I lose my breath. It’s like, ‘Oh my God. She’s not here. I’ll never see her again.’ It’s awful. I’m still, in some ways, in disbelief.”

— Melanie Creamer

Jeromy Lee, 40: Wanted to become Maine Guide

Jeromy Lee had been working seven-day weeks at Bath Iron Works for so long to make extra money for his family that he decided he needed a break.

He and his wife, Nichole, enjoyed his first weekend off in months this summer. They talked about how they might fill the next several weekends, too. Most would almost certainly have included hunting or fishing.

Jeromy Lee

“We had this future, so many things we wanted to accomplish and do together,” she said.

Jeromy Lee died Aug. 27, 2021, from complications of COVID-19. Unlike many who spend days or weeks in the hospital, he was there less than a day. He had turned 40 just a week earlier.

“It happened so fast,” said his wife of 16 years.

Lee is one of only 17 Mainers in their 40s who have died from the virus. He had no prior health problems but was not vaccinated.

“We weren’t anti-vaccine or anything. We talked a lot about getting it, but we had some concerns and it just didn’t happen,” his wife said. “We were very cautious, though. We wore our masks.”

Lee and his wife grew up on the same road in the Kennebec County town of China. They reconnected at a gathering as young adults and became inseparable, she said.

They have a 14-year-old daughter. He also has a daughter from a previous relationship, who is 21 and who gave birth to his grandson in January.

The Lees were supposed to celebrate their anniversary this week. They were going bird hunting. He had dreams of being a registered Maine Guide someday.

“Just the realization that it’s not going to happen, this year or any year, is so hard,” she said.

Nichole Lee hasn’t gotten vaccinated and said she doesn’t know if the shots would have saved her husband or not, but their decision eats at her.

“I do think people need to take this more seriously,” she said. “I wish we had.

“He just died too young. It still doesn’t feel real.”

— Eric Russell

Rick Lewis, 57: Musician and father

The last song that played in the hospital room before local musician Rick Lewis died of COVID-19 was the 1980s classic, “Don’t You Forget About Me.”

His family doesn’t plan to.

Rick Lewis

“When it was obvious he wasn’t coming out of it, I told him I was OK and he was OK,” his daughter, Melissa Lewis, said this spring. “I told him he was a great dad and we would talk about him forever.”

Lewis, who played drums under the name Rycky Styx in the ’80s cover bands Twyce Shy and No Guts No Glory, died April 14, 2021. He was 57.

A Brunswick native who lived in Lewiston, his day job was working in the parts departments at several car dealerships and garages. He briefly tried being a salesman, but it didn’t take.

“He refused to upsell people or guide people to things outside their budget,” his daughter said. “He really had a big heart for families that came in. He was always trying to get them a deal into a used car, instead of a new car.”

But his real love was music. He began playing local clubs as a teenager and never stopped.

“He would walk into a room and everyone knew he was there,” former bandmate Mark Couturier said. “He was a presence. Everyone loved him. He was a great person to be around and a great entertainer.”

Lewis died one week before he was due to get his first vaccine.

“Please take this seriously for a little while longer,” he wrote on Facebook less than two weeks before he died. “We’re almost there. I’m glad this happened to me and not someone else.”

— Melanie Creamer

Scott Libby, 55: Longtime worker at Jordan’s Meats

Scott Libby had been through tough things before and his family said that he brought the same resilience to his battle against COVID-19.

Libby caught the virus in early February when he was working at Abbott Laboratories in Westbrook, assembling rapid result COVID test kits. He was admitted to Maine Medical Center, where he was placed in the intensive care unit and put on a respirator.

Scott Libby and his wife Kim McDonough.

“I told him how much I loved him,” his wife, Kim McDonough, told the Press Herald in March. “When I went to get up, Scott gripped my hand – I think he heard me and was holding my hand. He lived another week.”

Libby died Feb. 27, 2021. He was 55.

He grew up in Portland and graduated from Portland High School in 1983. After high school, he got a job as part of a cleaning crew at Jordan’s Meats, which had been a mainstay of Portland’s East End. In 1987, Libby severed his left hand and part of his forearm in an accident while cleaning a meat blending machine. Rushed to a hospital in Boston, doctors were able to reattach the hand after 15 hours of surgery.

It took two more operations and dozens of physical therapy sessions, but Libby was able to regain use of his hand and returned to work at Jordan’s, where he became a cook. He worked at Jordan’s until the plant closed in 2005.

“He was so proud of doing that work,” McDonough said in March. “He would light up talking about Jordan’s Meats. He loved the company, the workers … everything about it.”

After Jordan’s closed, Libby worked at Maine Medical Center in the environmental services department and for Port Resources, helping adults with special needs live independently.

— Press Herald Staff

Sharon Merrill, 77: Guidance counselor and traveler

Sharon Merrill was a longtime guidance counselor in Cape Elizabeth, a voracious reader who loved adventure and traveled the world.

She died Feb. 6, 2021, at the age of 77.

Sharon Merrill

Merrill began her career as a teacher and guidance counselor in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. She earned three master’s degrees before becoming director of the guidance department in Cape Elizabeth, where she worked for 28 years.

Merrill was remembered by family and former colleagues as a dedicated educator who helped hundreds of students gain acceptance into colleges and universities. She also operated a private college planning business from 1992 to 2013.

“She was totally dedicated to her craft of being a high school college counselor,” her second husband, William Utley, told the Press Herald shortly after her death. “She loved steering kids to really good colleges. She was very dedicated to helping students.”

Merrill also was known for her sense of adventure and passion for life. She played golf and loved to fish. She spent a week or more each year skiing in the Rocky Mountains with family.

She traveled the world, too, from Cuba to Scandinavia. On many of her trips, she was accompanied by her first husband, H. Heinie Merrill. They were married 28 years before he died in 1999.

Merrill found love again and married Utley in 2006. They were together 15 years before her death.

“She was interesting and extremely bright,” he said. “She was one of the most voracious readers I’ve ever met.”

— Melanie Creamer

Mohammad Safai, 79: Beloved grandfather, retired Afghan general

Mohammad Safai survived 50 years in the Afghan army and the tragic deaths of two sons at the hands of the Taliban only to be cut down by COVID-19 at age 79.

When Safai died Nov. 20, 2020, at Maine Medical Center in Portland, he left a void in his family that will never be filled. Asila Gul Mohammad can still see her grandfather, sitting in his favorite chair, in his Westbrook apartment, offering wise but gentle advice to his three surviving daughters, 17 grandchildren and other family members.

Mohammad Safai

“He was the backbone in our family, but he was more like a father and a friend to me,” Mohammad said. “He was a very beautiful soul. He brought smiles to everyone. And he was still so strong. He’s been gone almost a year now and I still can’t forget the power of his handshake.”

The son of a federal judge, Safai attended the military college in Kabul. He served in the Afghan army against adversaries ranging from the Soviets to the Taliban, rising to the rank of general.

“He was very smart and very strong and he was always on the front line,” his wife, Shafi Safai, said through an interpreter. “He also was very handsome and very honest. He was the kind of guy who the inside and the outside were just the same.”

Tragedy struck the family when the Taliban killed one son in 2001 for failing to comply with the oppressive Islamist regime and a second son in 2010 for working with U.S. forces. The couple came to Maine in 2013, joining a daughter who had settled here with five children and her husband. The daughter died unexpectedly of cancer later that year.

“We have seen so much tragedy,” said Shafi Safai, a former schoolteacher who also contracted COVID-19 but survived. “I’m sad, but what can I do? That’s life.”

— Kelley Bouchard

MaryJean Zupkosky, 60: Devoted to cats and grandkids

MaryJean Zupkosky was a proud cat mom who had two rescue cats – Kittyboy and Little Rascal – and was known to feed strays who roamed through her neighborhood.

“She always had cats,” said her sister, Debbie McCarthy of Old Orchard Beach. “She was always looking out for the underdog and homeless cats. She lived for her animals.”

MaryJean Zupkosky

Zupkosky, a devoted mother and grandmother, died Aug. 7, 2021, four days shy of her 61st birthday.

Zupkosky was a retired bus driver for special needs children in New Hampshire. She was a mother of two children, and doted on her granddaughters. “Her love in life was her two grandchildren. She just adored the girls,” McCarthy said.

Zupkosky taught her children the importance of family and laughter. She spent time with family in Georgia and visited her son and grandkids in Florida as often as she could. She also took a cruise to the Caribbean and had another cruise planned for January.

Zupkosky lived with her sister in Old Orchard Beach. McCarthy said they were both fully vaccinated and both tested positive for COVID-19. While the vast majority of vaccinated people do not get seriously ill, McCarthy said her sister had underlying health conditions that made it harder for her to fight the virus.

“Her body was weak and just couldn’t fight it off. If she didn’t get COVID, she would still be alive,” McCarthy said, admitting she has guilt for surviving when her sister did not. “The sad thing is in 2020 and in the beginning of 2021, we were wearing masks. We were cautious. The summer came and things got a little relaxed. The numbers were low and you feel like you can travel. The numbers spiked. It hit us so fast. Within a matter of two weeks, she was gone.”

— Melanie Creamer

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