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Family of Oregon man killed by COVID-19 shares warning as cases surge ahead of Thanksgiving

"It's your civil responsibility as an American to protect the other people in your community who don't have the opportunity to stay home," Jenni Betschart said.

SALEM, Ore. — An Oregon family who lost a loved one early in the pandemic wants to spare other families the pain.

Steve Betschart was a long-time teacher in Dallas, Oregon near Salem. His wife and daughter want his death to serve as a reminder to people that this virus can be deadly and we all need to stay vigilant to protect our communities.

What does it look like to truly be a patriot? It looks like devotion to your country and your fellow citizens.

For his daughter, Steve Betschart embodied patriotism. The retired educator had worked at Dallas High School and Chemeketa Community College teaching history.

"My father was a patriot in a way that you should be a patriot," his daughter Jenni Betschart said. "He was all about educating the next generation - and doing it right!" 

He devoted his life to family and faith.

"He was a wonderful Christian man," his wife Karen Betschart said, "He loved his family, adored all his kids and grandkids."

Steve proudly played the bugle for three decades in Civil War re-enactments and played trumpet in the orchestra for Salem First Church of the Nazarene.

His music fell silent on April 2 when COVID-19 took his life at 71 years old.

"We have days we feel like it was yesterday," Jenn Betscharti added. 

His family believes he caught it at church since several other members also got sick. Steve did have pre-existing conditions and his family says his diabetes and heart issues were under control.

"He would not have died on April 2 from a heart attack," Jenni Betschart said.

Credit: Karen Betschart
Steve Betschart

At first, he just had a fever and cough and wasn't eating but went downhill rapidly. Karen called an ambulance a couple of days after he started feeling sick, and he was rushed to the hospital. 

"I kissed him goodbye. And told him, 'Goodbye, I love you," Karen Betschart said. "And that was the last time I saw him alive."

It all happened before Gov. Brown closed churches and before doctors knew much about this virus or how to treat it. 

"We weren't allowed to go to the hospital. But the hospital staff was amazing. Every day I would call a couple of times and they would call me back when they had time and they would take a phone and set it next to his ear. I would talk to him or sing to him or pray. And then Jenni and Annette and Matt all did it, too," Karen Betschart said. 

Karen and Jenni had to quarantine because they were exposed. That meant grieving in isolation, which only deepened their wounds. 

"I was totally isolated in a house by myself. There was nobody to hug or to give a kiss to. Nobody to talk face-to-face," Karen Betschart said through tears. "My children and our grandchildren never got to say goodbye in person."

Family and friends reached out daily by phone or virtually, and some even showed up outside to show their socially distant love. 

The family held a small graveside funeral days after he passed but because of limits on gatherings, they have yet to celebrate Steve's life.

"We still haven't had our closure," Karen Betschart added.

RELATED: 'The science is the science': Doctors warn against large holiday gatherings due to COVID-19

Steve's seat at the Thanksgiving table will be empty and his family knows holidays need to be different this year. Their celebration will be much smaller than years past, sticking only to their circle of about five people.

"We need to remember: give thanks on Thanksgiving for the things we do have; for the time we had with dad and our family that’s still alive, for our friends who reached out to us," Karen Betschart said. "We have to not be so selfish that we insist on doing it the way it's always been done."

The past seven months the Betscharts have watched case numbers climb, and at least 800 other Oregonians have died from the coronavirus.

The family is on board will all the governor's restrictions. They say they're frustrated people are trying to fight measures put in place to save lives - and fight science.

"It feels disrespectful to the death of my father when I see people who are taking no precautions to protect other people," Jenni Betschart said.

Ask the Betscharts what it looks like to be a true patriot and they'll tell you it's wearing a mask and staying home.

"People have it all warped. They're like, 'Oh, it's my civil liberty, I want to walk around without a mask on'. And I'm like, 'It's your civil responsibility as an American to protect the other people in your community who don't have the opportunity to stay home, who can't wear a mask!'" Jenni Betschart said. "That is our responsibility. That is how you show your patriotism."