They weren’t showing symptoms, but Gene and Shirley May got tested as a precaution after an employee came down with COVID-19 at their assisted-living center in Grove, two hours northeast of Tulsa.
The couple hardly ever left their own private suite, where 85-year-old Shirley suffered from dementia and 87-year-old Gene was fighting pneumonia. Only a handful of people went inside. And the infected employee, as far as anyone could tell, never came into contact with them.
“I wasn’t very worried, to be honest,” says Kevin May, their 57-year-old son who lives in the small town of Elgin, near Lawton. “It was a real shock when the tests came back positive.”
High-school sweethearts who met on a blind date, the Mays became well-known to generations of students at Oral Roberts University, where Gene taught chemistry from 1967 to 1995. He never missed a Golden Eagles home game.
“He would buy a program and keep track of every shot and free throw for every player,” Kevin says. “If his view was blocked or he got distracted and missed a shot, he would turn to me and ask, ‘Who shot that?’”
His mother would often invite the entire basketball team to dinner.
“And she was always amazed by how much they could eat,” Kevin says.
Diagnosed Nov. 1 with COVID-19, Shirley had no health complications, other than age and dementia. And the hospital sent her back to the assisted-living center. Gene, however, already had pneumonia as well as diabetes and chronic heart problems. Doctors in Grove sent him to a hospital in Tulsa.
“They told us right away that he didn’t have much of a chance,” Kevin says.
But Shirley went first. She died early Nov. 9.
Three days later, Kevin watched through a window in the ICU while his oldest brother stood at their father’s bedside.
“At least we got to be there when the moment came,” Kevin says.
Oklahoma reported record numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients this week, while the state also set new highs for its rolling seven-day average of new cases and fatalities. More than 1,400 people remain hospitalized with confirmed or suspected cases, with more than 400 in intensive-care units.
Statewide, COVID’s death toll has surpassed 1,600.
In retirement, the Mays became involved in the Gideons, an evangelical group devoted to distributing free Bibles. The always kept a box of Bibles in the back seat of their car, just in case they found an opportunity to hand them out. And every time they ate at a restaurant, Gene would leave the tip while Shirley left a copy of the New Testament.
Faith wasn’t just part of their lives, Kevin says.
“It’s how they lived,” he says. “It’s who they were.”
Video: Tulsa Health Department update Nov. 19
Gallery: COVID-19 basics