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Norwich couple died together but alone

Richard and Maybelle Johnson, married 70 years, died Jan. 13, just hours apart, from complications due to COVID-19.

The couple, who lived in Norwich for more than six decades, was exposed to the virus through an employee at their nursing home, Groton Regency Center, in late December, family members said.

They died at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London, where they were placed in the same room in their final days. Maybelle went first, followed a few hours later by Richard. They both were 94.

"That was their wish," daughter Rosemary Johnson said. "They wanted to die peacefully together, and the nurses said each passed peacefully."

"I feel that God had a hand in all of that," she said. "We grew up with a strong faith and I had been praying that God would just do what was best for them when they got diagnosed with COVID."

Maybelle and Richard both grew up in Maine, children of the Great Depression, and moved to Groton in the early 1950s and then to Norwich in 1955.

Richard first worked as a mathematician at Electric Boat before becoming a computer programmer at the Navy's Sound Lab in New London, which later became known as the Underwater Systems Center, until his retirement in 1989.

Maybelle raised their three children, Frank, Rosemary and Eric, who predeceased them, in a home in a wooded area of Norwich that reminded them of Maine. Religion was a major part of the children's upbringing. They went to Sunday school every week at Central Baptist Church, where Maybelle and Richard were longtime members.

Richard sang in the church's choir and was also a life member of the Barbershop Society, singing baritone with both the Norwich and Providence chapters and in several quartets.

One could argue that the couple's other religion was baseball. Maybelle and Richard were both devout Red Sox fans and loved watching the games together.

"That's 162 dates per year, plus spring training and sometimes the playoffs!" Richard's obituary says, which notes he often kept score of the games just for fun.

Richard became infatuated with books starting at an early age and amassed a collection of tens of thousands throughout his life.

"Even in the bathroom there were stacks of books," recalled his nephew, Tom Peaco, who said his uncle also loved reading old comic strips.

The Johnson children had no shortage of reading material growing up. Rosemary said the family even had their own encyclopedia. "We didn't have to go to the library," she said.

Frank Johnson said as a kid he'd flip through the various magazines his father subscribed to — Time, Newsweek and various economic publications. "I got quite an education in the 1960s reading those magazines," he said.

While Richard collected books, Maybelle was known for amassing postcards and buttons. She also was proficient at knitting, crochet and all manner of handiwork, distributing her finished products to family members and various fundraisers, her obituary says.

Maybelle also repaired things — a broken clock or vacuum cleaner.

"She wouldn't wait for Richard to come home. She would take things apart and see if she could put them back together," Frank said.

After Richard retired, the couple traveled to barbershop conventions around the U.S. and spent much of their summers in Bridgton, Maine, where Richard grew up and where the couple bought a cottage on Peabody Pond.

Tom and Deb Peaco, the couple's nephew and niece, recalled going to the cottage during the summer for family barbecues and to swim and play cards.

Richard and Maybelle stopped going to the cottage in their later years, per the wishes of their youngest son, Eric, who was wary about them driving there from Connecticut, Deb said. A year and a half ago, the couple lost Eric in a car crash.

"My parents never got over that," Rosemary said.

'They had each other'

Richard and Maybelle moved to Groton Regency in late January 2020 and a few months later, the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The virus has ravaged the state's nursing homes. More than 3,800 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19 since last March, accounting for about 61% of all deaths in the state.

With visits forbidden, meaning the Johnsons couldn't see their friends or family and were confined indoors, the pandemic, particularly in the early months, was hard on the couple. Rosemary sent her mother gel pens for her coloring books to help ease her boredom.

Eventually, Rosemary, who lives in Norwich, was able to see her parents outside the nursing home with masks on — first in the summer, and again in the fall. She recalled how happy her mother was to be outside in nature, commenting on the squirrels, the flowers, the trees.

"The nursing home tried. I'm not faulting them," Rosemary said. "It’s a pandemic. Everyone is having a hard time. At least they had each other."

While her parents were in the hospital, Rosemary, who talked to them nightly for many years, sent notes to them through the nurses station. Her mother was 90% deaf, while her father had a series of strokes in recent years that had recently rendered him speechless.

Four other Groton Regency residents also died as a result of COVID-19 the same week Richard and Maybelle did. In the month of January, at least nine residents at the facility died, state data show.

Even more devastating for the family was the fact that Richard and Maybelle contracted the disease just as the state was beginning to vaccinate its nursing home residents. 

"Just in our small corner of the world, people are dying every day from this disease," Rosemary said.

"Every statistic is a person. Every statistic you see on the governor’s reports. Every statistic you see on the evening news," she said. "All over the world, these are individual people who’ve touched so many lives and they’re gone."

j.bergman@theday.com

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