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Not Forgotten: Stories Of Houstonians We Lost To COVID-19

More than 300,000 people have died of COVID-19 in the United States. Here are some of the stories of people we’ve lost in the Houston area.

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Three-hundred thousand. That was the latest grim milestone passed in the United States: More than 300,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19. Of that number, more than 3,000 people have died right here in Harris County, more than any other county in the state of Texas.

But the COVID-19 death toll is more than just a statistic. Each number represents a person. Whether they’re police officers, security guards, educators, preachers or artists, every individual helps make up the very fabric of their community, across the country and here in Greater Houston. And as the death toll from COVID-19 rises, such monumental loss is reflected in the city itself.

Reporters from Houston Public Media wanted to help document that loss, and put faces to the numbers. The following is just a small sample of the larger toll taken on Houston and its surrounding areas — stories about real people, told by those who knew them.

Paul DeBenedetto, Sara Willa Ernst, Matt Harab, Laura Isensee, Florian Martin, Justin McKee, Jen Rice, Elizabeth Trovall, Lucio Vasquez and Katie Watkins contributed to this report.

MORE FROM NPR | How Do We Grieve 300,000 Lives Lost?

This story is part of Houston Public Media’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. Click here to see more of our coronavirus news and resources. If you know someone who has passed away from COVID-19, we want to hear from you. Email

Audio portraits from this project appeared throughout a recent episode of Houston Matters.

John Bland

John Bland
Courtesy Photo
John Bland

“When workers would doubt their ability to beat the odds and make change, Mr. Bland would say, ‘When we fought for integration in the 1960s, they arrested me 27 times, jailed me, and fined me, but that didn’t stop us.'”

More than 60 years ago, a group of Texas Southern University students took seats at the lunch counter at Weingarten’s Supermarket at 4110 Almeda Road, knowing they wouldn’t be served.

It was Houston’s first sit-in, and that spring, Black college students in cities across the country forced the beginning of an end to racial segregation — at lunch counters, department stores, and city halls.

One of the TSU students at the sit-in was John Bland, a 20-year-old who spent the rest of his life working to advance civil rights and equal opportunity.

Bland worked as a bus operator at HouTran, now called Metro, and he spent more than 50 years organizing with the Transport Workers Union. He served as a vice president of the Texas State AFL-CIO, a president of the Houston chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, a precinct judge, and a member of the Houston Police Department Citizen Review Committee.

“When workers would doubt their ability to beat the odds and make change, Mr. Bland would say, ‘When we fought for integration in the 1960s, they arrested me 27 times, jailed me, and fined me, but that didn’t stop us,'” Hany Khalil, Executive Director of the Texas Gulf Coast Area Labor Federation, said.

Bland died on July 9, 2020 at the age of 80. He leaves behind his wife, Betty Davis Bland, and their two daughters and grandson.

–Jen Rice

Lynn Carter-Crump

Lynn Carter-Crump
Courtesy Photo
Lynn Carter-Crump

“Her stories helped me to realize that instead of just reading about going on a trip, I could do it.”

In 1981, Lynn Carter-Crump was standing in a lecture hall on the campus of Texas Women’s University in Houston. The 20-year-old from Lake Jackson was sporting a fluffy fur coat and a can of soda pop in hand — sugar-free, caffeine-free Dr. Pepper.

Upon seeing Carter-Crump for the first time, classmate Ruth Sathre asked, “Why bother? Just drink water.”

Carter-Crump shrugged and unapologetically answered, “I like the flavor.”

They had come from different worlds. Unbeknownst to them, the two would soon become best friends. Carter-Crump loved the outdoors, especially to ride her horse Bowleg. She was drawn to medicine because her mother died when she was young, while Sathre, a bookworm who grew up fairly sheltered, came from a family of doctors.

“She pushed me,” said Sathre. “And I think I pushed her too. We could ask questions and challenge each other, but not take offense at it.”

Carter-Crump’s sense of adventure had a contagious effect. She was well-traveled. She pushed her friend to get her ears pierced. She visited the stables nearly every day — where Sathre met a horse for the first time.

“I’m very much an academic,” said Sathre. “It was a whole new experience for me. Her stories helped me to realize that instead of just reading about going on a trip, I could do it.”

She encouraged her husband, James Crump, to also pursue nursing. They had met in the U.S. Army, where Carter-Crump began her robust career as a registered nurse.

She returned to Texas and treated many different people — from inmates in the prison system to patients undergoing surgery to Boy Scouts when she volunteered as a summer camp nurse.

That’s where she met the aquatic instructor, Ryan Sanders, a young man who went by the nickname “Twig.” He showed a special interest in medicine, which Carter-Crump recognized, mentored and encouraged. He currently works as a paramedic and plans to attend medical school in the near future.

Lynn Carter-Crump, 59, died on Aug. 29 due to COVID-19. She is survived by her husband, father, son and grandchildren.

–Sara Willa Ernst

This story has been updated.

LeRoy Castro

LeRoy Castro
Alvin ISD
LeRoy Castro

“He was always very empathetic. But rather than just slathering sympathy on somebody and feeling bad for them, it was, ‘What can you do to help lift yourself up?'”

The first time LeRoy Castro went to college, he considered majoring in education. But it didn’t work out. Texas A&M University was more expensive than his family realized, and Castro struggled as a first-generation college student.

Instead, he joined the U.S. Marines, and after that, worked in sales.

Still, Castro was never 100% happy in those other civilian jobs and kept coming back to education, his widow Amy Castro said.

So, in his 30s, Castro started over: He eventually earned a master’s in education and built a career as an administrator in the Alvin Independent School District, most recently as the principal of Alvin Junior High.

His own dad went as far as the third grade, and his mom made it to seventh grade before they had to quit school and go to work.

“They always instilled in him, ‘You can do more, you can do better,'” Amy Castro said. “I think he definitely saw the value of education.”

As an educator, Castro tried to instill that can-do spirit in his own students. When he was a teacher in Pasadena, one of his students started coming to class in dirty clothes and got picked on.

Castro — who was fastidious in his own appearance, thanks to the Marines — took the student to the washroom. There, he taught the kid to do his own laundry in the sink with soap and water.

“He was always very empathetic,” his wife said. “But rather than just slathering sympathy on somebody and feeling bad for them, it was, ‘What can you do to help lift yourself up?'”

“And I think that’s something that he did in a lot of situations, whether it was academic struggles, or at-home struggles, or whatever it may be, you know, ‘What can I teach you? How can I support you, so that you can stand on your own two feet?'”

Castro died Nov. 20, 2020 from COVID-19 complications at the age of 58. He is survived by his wife Amy Castro and their daughter Kelsey.

A new junior high school in Alvin will bear LeRoy Castro’s name when it opens in 2023.

— Laura Isensee

Nathanael Essissima

“When he came to the U.S. he did not speak any English at all. He learned to write and read English in three months. Perfectly.”

Nathanael Essissima
Courtesy Photo
Nathanael Essissima

CEO Nathanael Essissima’s million-dollar idea came years before he was a successful businessman.

While working one of his first jobs loading trucks, as a new immigrant to the U.S., he noticed the waste produced by the disposable gloves they used. He later entered the glove sales market and established Jenessco Industries, an international company that produces sandblast cabinet gloves. His wife, Patty Essissima, has taken over his role as CEO since his death — a corporate position he spent their marriage preparing her for.

But born in the small village of Metêt in northern Cameroon in the 1940s, Nathanael Essissima didn’t have his own pair of shoes until adolescence.

His entrepreneurial spirit and discipline guided him at a young age. As a kid, he would wake up at 4 a.m. to walk to market and sell the vegetables they would grow in their backyard.

Essissima was smart, patient and organized. He greeted everyone with three kisses and always thought ten steps ahead.

A scholarship first brought Essissima to Washington, D.C. where he studied diplomatic relations. There he met his late wife, Ruby Lee Boley, with whom he had three kids: Felix, Philippe and Francine. They eventually settled in Houston.

Essissima’s life spanned multiple continents, countries and cultures. Lucky for him, his skill for picking up languages was enviable.

“When he came to the U.S. he did not speak any English at all. He learned to write and read English in three months. Perfectly,” said Patty Essissima, his widow. The essay he turned in for his first English class was so good, she said, the teachers thought he was cheating.

French was Essissima’s mother tongue, but he also learned to speak English fluently and could communicate in Spanish and Mandarin.

Their work took them on regular international trips to Germany, France and China where Nathanael would insist on trying the typical local dish. Patty’s son, Benjamin Hernandez, called their marriage a “great translation”, since Nathanael took the time to understand Patty’s Mexican heritage — and the rest of the family took time warming up to him.

“He taught me how to enjoy red wine and I taught him how to enjoy tequila,” said Patty.

Nathanael died in Houston, Texas on August 8, 2020 of symptoms caused by COVID-19.

— Elizabeth Trovall

Rev. Vickey Gibbs

Rev Vickey Gibbs
Courtesy Photo
Rev Vickey Gibbs

“We knew it was a holy moment. We knew she had shared her heart. We didn’t know it was going to be her last sermon.”

In her last sermon on June 7, Rev. Vickey Gibbs of Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church spoke about what she saw as a fractured nation and the need to “build bridges of reconciliation.” Over the course of 30 minutes, she touched on a range of social issues: her frustration with people not wearing masks, the death of George Floyd, racial inequality. She preached about raising the minimum wage, immigration policy and the downfalls of the “desire for power and money.”

“When we are silent when injustice happens in our world, in our nation, in our state, in our city — when we are silent we are complicit. Complicit in the injustice,” she said. “We are supposed to be bridges over troubled water.”

Senior pastor Troy Treash said Gibbs’ last sermon embodied her work and message. It was prerecorded due to the pandemic, but Treash said he and the few other tech people in the room were left speechless when she finished.

“She was exhausted and there was just silence,” he said. “We knew it was a holy moment. We knew she had shared her heart. We didn’t know it was going to be her last sermon.”

Gibbs died of COVID-19 about a month later, on July 10, at the age of 57.

Gibbs, who first joined Resurrection when she was 18, was known for her love of a good meal and conversation — which Treash said often went hand-in-hand with her commitment to social justice.

When Gibbs preached about social justice or political issues, church members would sometimes disagree with what she was saying. So, they would invite her to lunch to talk about it.

“She would joke that if ever she was approaching a justice issue really clearly and clarifying things that she was going to really eat well the next week,” Treash said. “Because the people who had challenges with what she said would ask her to lunch, and she knew lunch was not just a ‘Hey, Vicki, let’s talk.'”

But he said rather than walking away, people felt comfortable approaching her and talking about their disagreements. “She had always pushed people to take another step,” Treash said.

Gibbs is survived by her wife Cassandra White, their two daughters and a grandson.

— Katie Watkins

Ernest Leal Jr.

“He was my unofficial second in command. His expertise was unmatched in the squad. He was my go-to guy.”

Ernest Leal
Ernest Leal

Those who worked with Ernest Leal Jr. would tell you he left a lasting legacy as one of the hardest working officers in the Houston Police Department.

He was a well-respected, beloved leader, and served 36 years with HPD, eventually finding his niche working on the North Patrol Differential Response Team.

“He was the pillar of the squad,” says Seargent Tanfilo Galvan, Leal’s supervisor. “He was my unofficial second in command. His expertise was unmatched in the squad. He was my go-to guy.”

Leal had been pondering retirement before he died of COVID-19 on Nov. 27, at 60.

But that was the ongoing joke — whether or not he would actually leave HPD.

“He would always say, ‘about 10 more months,” Galvan laughed. “He was known as ‘Mr. 10 months,’ so nobody ever knew.”

Perhaps if he would have retired, he never would have actually stopped working — especially this time of year.

Officer Leal volunteered with the nonprofit organization Navidad en el Barrio. For more than 20 years, Leal wrapped up and brought gifts to children in underserved Hispanic communities in Houston.

“It started off really small, a few officers in the east side. Now, I think they’re up to like 42 elementary schools,” Galvan said. “There’s a lot of logistics involved. Ernie was deep in the midst of it.”

Galvan said he thinks Leal wanted to become a police officer for the same reason he enjoyed volunteering: He wanted to help, and perhaps there’s no better example of his legacy on Houstonians than what members of the Mangum Manor Parks Civic Group did when Leal was in the hospital: They formed a vehicle caravan of about five cars, holding posters that said things like “We Miss You Ernie,” and “Get Well.”

“That’s a prime example of the positive impact he had,” Galvan said.

Leal is the only HPD officer to have died of COVID-19 this year.

— Matt Harab

George Longoria

George Longoria
Nigel Brooks / Houston Dynamo
George Longoria

“If there was ... sports and entertainment, in one way, shape or form, George was there.”

Not every security guard is a local celebrity. But George Longoria fit that description.

Longoria worked event security for the past 30 years, most notably during Houston Dynamo games since the soccer franchise’s inaugural season in 2006 – first at the University of Houston’s Robertson Stadium and later at BBVA Stadium. He also worked at games and events at NRG Stadium, Minute Maid Park and Toyota Center.

“If you didn’t know him by name, you knew him by face,” said Juan Rodriguez, general manager of BBVA Stadium. “If there was ... sports and entertainment, in one way, shape or form, George was there.”

Longoria distinguished himself by his fun and friendly nature, he said, despite the job requiring some sternness.

“It was part of the experience and it was part of life for him to be there doing his job to the best extent possible,” Rodriguez said, “but doing it in a way that was humane and came across as truly, truly sincere.”

Players appreciated Longoria and the fist bumps he would give them as they were going through the tunnel.

Many expressed their sympathies on Twitter, including soccer gold medalist Carli Lloyd, who played for the Houston Dash from 2015-17.

Longoria died on July 10 from COVID-19 complications. He was 50 years old.

He is survived by his wife, Andrea, and his daughter, Lauren.

— Florian Martin

Eusebia Mendez

“She was very much salt of the earth.”

Eusebia Mendez
Courtesy Photo
Eusebia Mendez

Longtime Galveston psych ward nurse Eusebia Mendez grew up in shotgun shacks in the Rio Grande Valley, where she walked to school along the town’s dirt roads and picked strawberries and oranges to afford school supplies.

Orphaned in her early teens, Mendez’s philosophy on life was “if people don’t love you, love yourself.”

But while she may have lived by that philosophy, she also did find herself surrounded by love throughout her life.

She met her husband, Pedro Mendez Gonzalez, in her late 30s. She fell in love with him, despite some failed first attempts to woo her — whistling when she would park down the street in her Camaro.

On the day he planned to propose, authorities picked him up in an immigration sweep and he was deported. They got married in Jalisco state, Mexico and he was soon able to secure a visa, so they could start their lives together.

Her father, Jose Medina, her last surviving parent, died of tuberculosis. She grieved with her two living siblings, while they quarantined in solitude behind the walls of a house in San Angelo for six months before she moved in with her tíos.

Her independent spirit led her from the Valley to Galveston to study nursing. She worked at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for 35 years and spent most of those years at the psych ward. And her passion for psychology spilled into her personal life: She practiced self-reflection, read psychology articles in her spare time and supported mental health care.

She enjoyed mystery and horror movies and would guess the endings — sometimes with prodigious accuracy. She loved solving cryptograms in the Galveston newspaper, listening to Motown and betting on sports during the holidays. Later in life she became a senior citizen Taekwondo black belt holder.

Mendez was 10 years the senior of her husband, and handled the family finances, according to her son, Houston poet and educator Lupe Mendez. She was the “rock” of the household.

Friends called her “Cheva” or “Chevy”, her son said — “she was very much salt of the earth.”

She is survived by her husband, Pedro, her son, Lupe, daughter-in-law Jasminne Mendez Rosario, and her granddaughter Luz Maria Magdalena Mendez Rosario.

Mendez died at 86 on Oct. 1, 2020 of complications due to COVID-19.

Lupe Mendez said she had mortality in mind in her approach to motherhood: “I am on this earth for the time I have to teach you everything I can... so pay attention.”

— Elizabeth Trovall

Ellen Shaw

Ellen Shaw
Courtesy Photo
Ellen Shaw

“As she grew in her faith, she realized that there are certain gifts that God gives individuals … And she knew that this is one of those gifts.”

Ellen Shaw created art in many different media throughout her life. Whether it be painting or decorating, she was constantly finding new avenues of self-expression that she was eager to share with others.

She began her journey as an artist at a young age. Shaw’s art earned her praise among her peers, as well as a scholarship to Texas Woman’s University. However, due to the sudden death of her father, Shaw stayed home to support her family and turned down the scholarship.

She continued to create art in the years that followed. As a devout Christian, she believed she could use her talents to help others. In 1977, she and her husband, John Shaw, converted their garage into a makeshift art studio, where Ellen taught women how to paint for 10 years.

“As she grew in her faith, she realized that there are certain gifts that God gives individuals,” said John. “And she knew that this is one of those gifts.”

The house they lived in was used as another art project for Ellen Shaw, who took control of the interior design process.

“People have asked me how I’ve been doing since she passed, and I say ‘how do you think I’m doing in the house of Ellen?'” he laughed. “The paintings, the decorations, the colors. It’s almost like a painting itself in many ways.”

Towards the end of every year, her creativity was put on full display, as the house was covered in Christmas decorations that she created from scratch. When it came to the Christmas tree, her husband says it would look completely different every year: “She would look at it as a canvas,” he said.

Then, in 2015, Shaw had determined that she had created the perfect Christmas tree.

“We fastened every ornament to every branch and we found a Christmas tree cover to put over it and put it in the garage,” her husband John said.

For the past five years, the day after Halloween, Ellen and John have taken the Christmas tree out of the garage and plugged it in.

This year, the tradition continues without Ellen.

At the age of 79, she died in the early morning of March 29, marking Brazoria County’s first death due to COVID-19.

— Lucio Vasquez

Ellen's Christmas Tree
Courtesy Photo