For all the things that he was in his well-lived life – son and brother, husband and father, coach and friend – his last descriptor was cold: confirmed COVID-19 death.
On June 24, Thomas Joseph Marino Jr. became one of the more than 151,000 COVID-19 fatalities (so far) in the United States.
At age 77, he was a demographically predictable victim. A full eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have been among people 65 and older, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis; in Tennessee, 76% of deaths fall into that category.
So, yes, death always gets the final say.
But it does not get the only say.
It was the 1950s and Tom Marino and younger brother Rick were living with their mother in Hurt Village. Their father, Rick says, was in prison after declining to snitch on his partners in crime.
Through the years, Rick says, their parents would separate and reunite multiple times.
“We didn’t know it was a poor place for whites,” he said of Hurt Village, a new, all-white, public housing project.
“We’d sneak down to the Wolf River and swim,” Rick, 73, said. “We were always kinda getting in trouble.”
A few years later and doing better, the family was living in what is now known as the Mary Lou Heights subdivision around White Station and Mesquite.
As teenagers, Tom and Rick would play corkball with friend Wendell Davis and another boy.
“A poor man’s game, a city game,” Davis, 79, said. “You’d get a cork from the pharmacist, put a penny or a dime in there, wrap paper all around it, and throw it underhand with two fingers to put spin on it, and bat with a broomstick.”
It feels like a lifetime ago.
And a minute ago.
“Simpler days,” said Rick, who played football at the University of Tennessee and was on the 1967 team that earned a share of the national championship.
Two deaths, one funeral
Tom would grow up and become a social studies/history teacher and high school football coach, spending much of his career at Bartlett High School and taking students on field trips to Washington, D.C.
“He left an impression on quite a few young men and women in his life,” Rick said.
Tom retired in 1999 and settled into a more relaxed life that allowed him to play golf as much as he wanted. On Wednesday nights, he volunteered at the DeNeuville Learning Center in Memphis, helping women with limited resources as they studied for their high school equivalency and citizenship tests.
And of the four Marino brothers – Tom, Rick, Steve, Robert – it was Tom, the oldest, who seemed to stay in the best of health in their later years.
He had no underlying conditions, family members said, and friend Wendell Davis remembered that he only allowed himself the occasional cigarette or cigar.
“Nothing regular,” said Davis.
“He was just in super shape,” Nora (Marino) McGowan, their sister, said.
Not so Steve, who had many health complications. He died at age 68 on April 7 of this year – or about 11 weeks before Tom.
“They ruled it a heart attack,” Nora said. “But he’d been sick for a week, coughing, and the night he died in the ambulance his body just shut down. We felt like it was COVID.”
But absent an autopsy, they’ll never really know.
A priest came to Steve’s home in Eads and presided over an outdoor service.
The family has yet to hold a service for Tom.
“We really haven’t said our final goodbyes,” Rick said.
Nora McGowan, 62, will concede she didn’t always take COVID-19 as seriously as she does now: “I definitely didn’t believe it was bad as it was. I was not careful.”
Before Steve died – and she remains confident this coronavirus hastened his death – she was good about washing her hands and social distancing; she did not always wear a mask to the grocery store.
On May 31, or about seven weeks after Steve had passed away, Nora, Tom and Rick drove to a casino in Tunica. She says they carried hand sanitizer, wore masks in the casino, kept apart from others – as much as possible – but didn’t wear their masks in the car.
As was his custom, Tom also would play golf several times in the next few days.
On Tuesday, June 9, Tom called Nora to say he wasn’t feeling well but was still going golfing the next day.
“Just allergies,” he told her.
When he canceled his golf outing on Wednesday, Nora said, “I knew something was wrong.”
Tom got in touch with a doctor, who prescribed him an antibiotic. But Tom only got worse as the week wore on.
“He told me, ‘I’ve never felt this bad,’” Nora said.
So, Tom and his wife Bettye went for COVID-19 tests. They were both positive. Bettye, who had just had knee surgery, had no COVID symptoms, but the knee was bothering her.
On the morning of Saturday, June 13, they drove to Methodist Le Bonheur Germantown. Bettye went in alone and was admitted. Although feeling awful, Tom returned home. But by that night, he had come back to the hospital and was admitted into the ICU.
Nora called Tom Sunday night. “He was laboring to talk,” she said.
It would be their final conversation.
Not long afterward, Tom went on a ventilator. He died on June 24.
“Tom was the picture of health,” Rick said. “When Tommy got it, it was like, ‘Wow, we’re not bulletproof by any means.’”
“He truly waited too late,” Nora said. “He wanted to believe it was something else.”
Bettye has remained asymptomatic to this day.
“She’s fine,” Nora said, “other than being devastated.”
One of a kind
The virus known as COVID-19 possibly started with the selling of an infected animal at an outdoor market in Wuhan, China, early epidemiologic field studies showed. But some later epidemiologic studies have questioned those findings, and left open the chance the virus was created in a laboratory.
Dr. Mark Kortepeter, a biodefense expert who wrote on the natural vs. manmade debate for forbes.com, concluded that at this point it was impossible to say for sure. But he leaned toward COVID-19 being “an infectious coronavirus that spilled over from bats into a population that has already experienced a previous spillover event from a related virus.”
Joe Juleson, 70, who now lives in Oregon, doesn’t know about any of that, only that he has lost his dear friend.
He met Tom at Memphis National Golf Club in Collierville more than 20 years ago. Juleson was playing with two other guys when Tom, seeing they needed a fourth, asked: “Can I play?”
“From that day on, we never separated,” said Juleson, a retired Delta Airlines pilot. “We’d go to lunch together (Rio Azul in Cordova was a favorite), we’d go get a haircut together, we’d go grocery shopping.”
Playing 300 rounds a year together might have led to arguments, or at least allowed Juleson to see Tom Marino at his worst. Golf can do that.
“Tom was intense with his game, wanted to excel,” he said. “But did he get mad? Not really.
“He was like what they say about a boy scout: affable, courteous, friendly.”
“A fun-loving guy, loyal to his friends,” said Wendell Davis, who spent many good times with Tom on Tiger Lane.
A new reality as life goes on
Juleson considers himself healthy.
“Strong as an ox,” he said. “But I’m very careful. I have limited outside exposure. My wife (Heid Anne) does have some underlying health issues. I use that Purell stuff.”
Davis has lost two other friends to COVID-19 besides Tom Marino.
“It’s very disturbing,” he said. “I’ve been relegated to my garden. I barely go out.”
Nora McGowan has been a teacher for 37 years. A few days ago, she was in her 4th-grade classroom at Holy Rosary Catholic School, making it ready for socially-distanced in-person instruction.
It is her students that she now puts top-of-mind.
“They miss their friends,” she said. “That’s the hardest thing. I think we can do this if I follow all the rules. I feel we need to try it.
“I’m not scared. The virus does have my respect.”
Rick’s too, and he is not necessarily thrilled his sister might be back in the classroom with the area’s cases on the rise.
As of Thursday, July 30, the overall positivity rate for Shelby County had climbed to 10.3%.
“It kinda makes me nervous,” Rick said, adding, “It kinda sounds simplistic, but I feel like you’re on this earth until your work is done.
“When it’s your time, it’s your time.”
Yes, death gets the final say, but not the only say.