Ione Jenson has many pictures of her husband, Asa, who had been known to everyone as “Ace” since he was a small child.
The most recent — and last — photo shows him with two of his fellow residents at Marquis Hope Village Post-Acute Rehab, enjoying a little sunshine outside the front door of the facility in early June.
It was the first very slight crack in months of strict lockdown protocols the residents had endured, allowing them out of their rooms and even to see family outdoors, as long as visitors agreed to wear a face covering and stay at least six feet away.
Sadly, the photo was taken just days before the novel coronavirus would strike this facility with a vengeance unseen at virtually any other care home in the state, infecting almost all of its residents and many of its employees.
Ione, who took the picture, laughed as she remembered Ace joking with his buddies that day about acting out plans to hotwire a Marquis bus and make their escape.
In less than two weeks, he would be dead from Covid-19.
‘He … Was a Part of Them’
They met from afar, while Ace was serving in the Korean War and Ione, 18, was “in the full swing of college.”
“A friend of mine, who was engaged, met Ace’s mother at a family reunion. She said he gets so lonely in the service and asked, ‘Do you know a nice girl that would write to him?'” she recalled. “They asked me, and I said, ‘Oh sure, that’s the least I could do.'”
They corresponded that way for over a year — social distancing, before it was cool — and were eventually writing to each other everyday. They met and went on their first date while he was on leave.
“We knew very shortly that this was something that we both wanted to make permanent,” she said. “So, we got married the next year.”
After the armistice, Ace began a different life of service. In 1971, he became a pastor in the tiny town of Dufur in north-central Oregon, which boasted about 500 souls (it has since grown to more than 600).
Having grown up on the family farm in Underwood, Iowa, driving tractors, picking corn and helping with farm chores from a young age, he was right at home in Dufur, which is known far more for its wheat, grapes and tree fruit than for its bustling nightlife.
“He was a farm boy, so in that farming community, he just settled right in and was a part of them,” she said. “If anyone needed help with bucking a bale or two, he’d go right over. He was a real part of the community.”
He pastored the Dufur Christian Church for 25 years — but never got too hung up on denominations.
“The town had a few other churches — Catholic, Methodist — but he was very nondenominational in his ministry,” she said. “Every week, he would make his nursing home visits and hospital visits, and he would see everyone. He would go out to the tavern every morning and have coffee with all the local yokels. Everyone knew him. They’d say, ‘Hey, Ace.'”
He loved kids, and all the schoolchildren knew that if they stopped by the church on their way home, Ace would have a smile and a piece of candy for them. He especially loved babies — and they loved him.
“After church every Sunday, the mothers would bring by their babies in arms, and the babies always loved to rub his bald head,” she said with a laugh. “I called him a gentle giant. He was a big man, but he was so wonderfully gentle and empathetic. He was a minister for 40 years. He just took care of people.”
After his retirement in 1996, he took a part-time gig at an independent church in Tygh Valley, where he spent another 15 years. He was also a chaplain for Hospice at the Gorge.
His long career took him to many long-term care facilities and hospitals over the years, and when circumstances were such that he became the one who was in need of such care, he knew exactly what he wanted — and didn’t want — in a nursing home.
‘He Felt He Was in the Best Possible Place’
The Jensons had lived in an apartment at the Hope Village Senior Living Community for about a year when it became clear that Ace needed more care than Ione could give.
Despite being nearly 90, his mental and physical health was actually pretty good. It’s just that he was such a big dude, and he was beginning to have problems with mobility.
“He was having difficulty getting around, and he was falling and stuff like that,” she said. “Actually, his health was pretty darn good, and I would have expected him to go on for, at least, a few more years — without this virus. As far as his heart and lungs, he was perfectly healthy.”
He had been receiving physical therapy, intended to help strengthen his legs and restore some of his lost mobility and independence.
Ace was beloved by the care staff, who especially enjoyed telling stories of his quips and exploits. To protect his privacy, he was known by the pseudonym “Sassy Resident” — a nickname they say he never failed to live up to.
“He had them wrapped around his little finger,” she said, when asked how well he got along with the facility’s staff. “He wanted popcorn; they would go right out and pop him popcorn.”
He was “very, very happy” there, Ione said.
“He would have preferred to be home, of course, but he did say to me more than once, ‘I get such loving, tender care here,'” she said. “As long as he had to be someplace, he felt he was in the best possible place.”
He was a big joker and loved to banter with the younger employees. In Ione’s words: “The more he liked you, the more he teased you.” Some could give it right back to him.
“One time, [a female staff member] asked him, ‘How are you, Ace?’ and he said, ‘Well, I don’t have any complaints,'” Ione said. “She turned on her heels in an instant and said, ‘That’s a first.’ They were back and forth like that a lot.”
She described another time where he teased a female resident to the point that she gave him a playful smack or two. An aide came over and asked, “Are you OK with her hitting you like that?” Ace, chuckling, said, “Oh, yeah. I was asking for it.”
“He was very much alive,” his wife said, “up until the end.”
‘God Better Be Ready to Laugh’
The Covid-19 outbreak at the Marquis Hope Village rehab center was officially confirmed on June 4, but it had been spreading, invisibly, for days before that. The earliest possible sign was an employee who developed symptoms on May 31 and later tested positive, but officials have said the asymptomatic spread in this facility was so “massive” it will be impossible to definitively trace to its original source.
What is known is that the coronavirus has spread to at least 104 people with ties to the facility, including 43 staff members and 33 of the 38 residents. Ten have died — nine of them residents at Marquis Hope Village, and one believed to be a resident who succumbed at the hospital.
Ace was one of the former.
It was the weekend before last that family and friends made the trip out for their final visit. A grandson and his four children came down from Chehalis, Ione said.
“They held the kids up to the window one by one, so they could say goodbye to grandpa,” she said. “He smiled and acknowledged them. They had a phone and he tried to talk. Of course, he was in an oxygen mask by then.”
On Monday, June 15, he was visited by their minister from the Smyrna United Church of Christ, Deb Patterson, whom he adored, and his best friend, Rick Gano — who used to bring him “buckets of popcorn,” according to Ione.
He said he was glad to see them again. Ione is sure he knew by then that he wasn’t going to make it. Their final conversation was also that Monday.
“He didn’t have much to say, but he said he was doing ‘fine.’ He was always protecting me,” she said. “He asked, ‘How are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m fine, Ace. I’m fine.’ And other than the usual ‘I love you’s,’ that was the last conversation.”
He died Tuesday, four days before they would have celebrated their 66th wedding anniversary. He was 89.
“The powerlessness comes from the fact that you want to physically be there, holding their hand, talking to them, or just being there,” she said. “That separation of glass feels almost like an imprisonment.”
But he was not alone. He was comforted in his final hours by Tracy, his favorite worker, who had given him the nickname “Sassy Resident,” and whom he called (though never within her earshot) his “gem.”
The last two evenings of his life, Tracy came by to sit with him for hours. She held his hand. She heard his last words: He asked about a letter that had come in from Ione and what it had said. “That she loves you!” Tracy replied. He took his final breath shortly thereafter.
“How many, many hands had he held and people he sat with as they took their last breath?” Ione wondered. “Too many to count! Tracy was such a blessing. I think that was his karma paying off.”
No funeral service was planned, only a private memorial. Upon hearing the news, his great-nephew Derek Mether, whom he baptized at the Dufur Christian Church in 1986, summed up the feelings of many when he said: “He will be missed, but he’s watching over us now. God better be ready to laugh.”
“Ace would poke fun at God as quick as anyone,” Ione agreed. “He was equally at home with the governor when he shared the podium with him as he was with the disenfranchised that appeared at the door, asking for food. It didn’t matter to him. They were both going to get some of his humor.”
Hear more from Ione Jenson in Episode 182 of the Canby Now Podcast, “Ace”: