This Cedar Rapids couple got COVID then died days after celebrating their 50th anniversary in the hospital

Judy and Gary Stevens' story is one of three The Gazette will feature this week of local married couples who died of the disease in November

CEDAR RAPIDS — A Christmas wreath and an evergreen arrangement adorn the gravesite of Judith and Gary Stevens at St. Joseph’s Cemetery just southwest of Cedar Rapids. Judith, who went by Judy, had ordered the holiday decorations but never got to put them up.

The couple died just a few days apart at UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids after both contracted the coronavirus. Judy, 77, died Nov. 16 and Gary, 82, died Nov. 20.

Their deaths underscore a grim trend: Families losing multiple members in quick succession as the pandemic death toll rises. Their story is one of three profilesThe Gazette will feature this week of married couples in the Corridor who both died of the disease in November alone.

Couple well-known in Cedar Rapids

Judy’s sister, Karen Axmear, of South English, said she’s having trouble believing her sister is gone.

She didn’t go the burial out of concerns about the virus and has seen her other sibling, Lloyd Brockshus, only in a couple of brief meetings at the gravesite.

Not being able to be with extended family makes the loss harder to process, she said.

“My brother and I take turns; one day he cries, and the next day I cry,” she said.

The couple were well-known in the Cedar Rapids community they called home. Judy had a long career in real estate and had worked for Skogman Realty since 1989. She was a Master Gardener and for years appeared on KCRG-TV once a week to talk about gardening. She also contributed gardening columns to The Gazette.

Gary was a lineman at Iowa Electric Light and Power Company before retiring in 1992. In 1978, an accident led to the loss of one arm. That didn’t stop him from continuing his hobbies of woodworking, welding and restoring classic cars, said his niece, Jami Stevens.

A 1970 Monte Carlo he restored is in her garage; when she was pregnant with her son Bennett, now 10, Gary gave her the keys and told her the car was for him.

“When my dad passed about 15 years ago, Uncle Gary kind of just went into the role of my dad. If I needed anything, he would be right there,” Stevens said. “For my son, both Judy and Gary stepped in as second grandparents to him.”

They put others first

Judy was born in rural Williamsburg to Alfred and Luella Wille Brockshus and graduated from Williamsburg High School in 1960 before studying science at the University of Iowa. She worked as a medical technologist and microbiologist at Allen Hospital in Waterloo and St. Luke’s in Cedar Rapids before going into real estate. Gary was born in Poweshiek County to Ben and Florence Minnaert Stevens and graduated from Hilton Consolidated School in Conroy in 1957 before serving in the Army from 1958 to 1963.

They married on Nov. 13, 1970 at St. Matthew Catholic Church. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the hospital.

More in this series

Norris and Jane Gronert were high school sweethearts, and they married in 1951. The couple died just two hours apart on Nov. 11. Norris and Jane contracted COVID-19 during an outbreak at an assisted living center in Cedar Rapids, where they lived.

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The couple didn’t have children, but Judy’s brother, Lloyd Brockshus, of Williamsburg, said they loved all the kids in the family as if they were their own.

“I was a single parent and had a hard job that required me to be on the road,” he said. “Judy would bring my daughter or son over to spend the night with her. She would take all these grandchildren and great-grandchildren up to the house and do something with them; they’d do crafty things, make things, be blowing bubbles. That’s the type of person she was. She just loved her family.”

Judy’s sister Karen agreed.

“My kids she did everything for, everything. When my kids were little, she used to take them every summer. They’d go up and have a vacation week,” she said.

The couple loved creating; on their gravestone, the family had illustrations etched: a saw and hammer for Gary and bird house and bird for Judy. Each year, the two of them would make hundreds of handmade Christmas ornaments to give family and friends.

They volunteered; Judy would serve meals at Green Square Meals, and Gary would use his welding skills to make pieces for Habitat for Humanity to auction at fundraisers. Earlier in life they tutored, and more recently they helped pay for higher education of others through scholarship funds, Karen’s daughter-in-law Anne Oxmear said.

“They just really enjoyed life, enjoyed helping others, enjoyed volunteering. They were involved in their church,” Jami Stevens said. “They put anyone and everything in front of themselves.”

‘It doesn’t feel like it’s real’

Though it is hard to be sure when the virus is so widespread in the community, they may have contracted COVID-19 the weekend before they got sick, she said. That Sunday, they went to church and then out for breakfast before making a stop at the grocery store.

“I know everybody wants to get back to their regular lives, and you just need to wait,” Stevens said.

Like Judy’s siblings, she’s also having trouble believing her aunt and uncle are gone.

“It’s like a dream. It doesn’t feel like it’s real. I’ll just be waiting for them to walk in for Christmas,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting it to be those two. They were supposed to be here forever.”

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