Wilford and Mary Kepler first started talking while they were thousands of miles away from each other, separated by oceans and land during World War II.
They spent their final moments with each other just feet apart, separated by a hospital bed frame.
Mary, who began writing to Wilford while he was serving in the Pacific in World War II, died April 18 at Froedtert Hospital — just six hours after Wilford.
Froedtert staff moved their beds closer together during their final days at the hospital so they could hold hands. They were able to communicate with their family via phone and video calls.
Although both tested positive for the coronavirus, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office confirmed only Mary died from the virus.
Wilford's cause of death was listed as a traumatic head injury after he suffered a fall on Easter Sunday. Wilford and Mary were both admitted to the hospital after being transported by ambulance after Wilford's fall April 12.
Wilford tested positive after being admitted to the hospital. Mary had tested positive for the coronavirus April 8 and was in quarantine at her home at the time.
Their granddaughter, Natalie Lameka, was one of the last people to see them alive. She met with them for an hour April 17.
“They were aware of what was going on, and they were at peace with it,” she said.
Lameka said the couple went through so much during their lives. The Great Depression. World War II. The Vietnam War. Several recessions.
It was because of this that they were who she would call whenever anything went wrong in her life. They always seemed to be able to put things in perspective for her.
The Keplers will be buried together at a later date in a cemetery near Boaz, Wisconsin, where Wilford grew up. Mary grew up 20 minutes away in Blue River.
Their son, Michael Kepler, said they were a kind and caring couple.
“They took care of their children," Kepler said. "They lived a good life, and they got their kids educated. They did the things that most people would want to do for their children and for their families."
Wilford was 94. Mary was 92.
Cared for by 'angels'
Mary said before her death she was being cared for by “angels," her obituary read.
Lameka said the hospital picked one nurse to watch over the couple in the week they were there. That nurse called the family several times a day to update them on the couple’s condition.
Because of strict restrictions, the hospital allowed only one visitor per patient. Lameka was joined by her brother, Spencer, to visit their grandparents April 17. Hospital staff gave them personal protective equipment to wear during that final visit.
Kepler said he was appreciative that staff was able to let him video chat with his parents. He was able to express his love to his mom and dad one last time.
“My family really appreciated that,” he said.
This is affecting families
Lameka, a nurse, has seen firsthand how the coronavirus pandemic has affected the hospital system.
But it hit home for her with the deaths of her grandparents.
“This is affecting families in a big way. We lost our family,” Lameka said.
She said her grandparents were extremely careful as well. She isn't aware of where they were exposed to the coronavirus. However, they did have to go out to get groceries and run other errands.
“They still had to live their lives, as much as we wanted to help them,” Lameka said.
They lived a full life
Wilford and Mary graduated from Richland Center High School, although Wilford was drafted and reported for duty in World War II before his class graduated in 1943.
Wilford served on the USS Wilkes-Barre, which was involved in the Battle of Okinawa. It was around this time a good friend of Mary’s told her to write to her friend's brother.
When Wilford returned from the war, he started to work as a cheesemaker in Richland County. He also started to date Mary.
They married in 1946. They moved from Beloit to Milwaukee to New Berlin, and finally to Wauwatosa.
Wilford was a machinist at Harnishfeger Corp., where he worked for 35 years. Mary worked as the vice president of U.S. Steel Supply, the first woman in such a position. Mary took night classes at Alverno College, and graduated with a college degree in 1981 when she was 54.
In their later years, they both enjoyed gardening, playing cards and visiting with their grandchildren. They loved to host Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations for the family. Michael Kepler expressed how great of a hostess his mom was.
“She didn't want other people in the kitchen or doing the dishes. That was her domain,” Kepler said.
In a eulogy, Kepler spoke about how both of them were hard workers. Wilford volunteered at the Milwaukee VA Hospital for more than 20 years. Mary served on the Milwaukee County Commission on Aging.
"Mom always joked that he hardly ever missed work, and if he had missed work, his fellow workers would have taken up a collection for his funeral," Kepler wrote in the eulogy.
"He wasn't really loud but he liked to be with people, and he liked to joke," Kepler also said.
Lameka remembered her grandpa as being quiet. "But when he did say something, it was very meaningful and thoughtful," she said.
Lameka shared that her grandma loved to have fun. She often danced well into the night at family weddings, including at her wedding — a memory she'll never forget.
"Whenever she would do something nice for someone she would say, 'you may not be in a position to do something like this for someone now, but someday you will be, and I hope you pay it forward,' " Lameka said. "That's how they lived their lives."
Wilford and Mary are survived by their children, Michael (Mary Beth Keppel), Sandra and Michelle (Dan) Pike; grandchildren Christopher and Andrew Kepler, Natalie and Spencer Lameka, Maria and Sasha Arevalo, Jessica and James Pike; and six great-grandchildren.
There will be no services at this time.
Evan Casey can be reached at 414-403-4391 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ecaseymedia.