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COVID death toll in Volusia and Flagler includes local leaders and beloved family members

Daytona Beach News-Journal logo Daytona Beach News-Journal 12/31/2020 Jim Abbott, The Daytona Beach News-Journal

Death has been a grim, constant marker of the ultimate impact of the the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

The casualty count is updated daily. Nationally, the death total that approached 334,000 as New Year's week began already dwarfed the casualties of such historic events as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Pearl Harbor and the Vietnam War.

In Florida, the virus has accounted for the deaths of more than 21,300 Florida residents, a figure that doesn't include more than 300 non-resident deaths. In Volusia County, as of Monday, there have been 430 deaths. In Flagler County, there have been another 48.

Behind each of those numbers is a story.

This year, The News-Journal offered an ongoing series of profiles to put faces to the numbers generated by the virus. It's a list that ranges from familiar community leaders to others only known for the indelible impact they made on family, friends and neighbors.

Here's a look at some of those we've lost. 

'We never wanted for anything'

At age 102, Port Orange resident Laura Mezzanotte was born during one pandemic and died in another.

Mezzanotte, who had moved from Syracuse, New York, to Port Orange with her son and his wife seven years ago, died May 18 from complications of COVID-19.

In her final years, Mezzanotte was at Opis Coquina Center in Ormond Beach. There, she tested positive but was asymptomatic. Regardless, she spent three or four weeks at Halifax Health Medical Center, where she died.

Mezzanotte was born Laura Spetrino to Italian immigrants in Bridgeport, Connecticut, on March 3, 1918, the year of the last major pandemic to sweep across the United States. Bridgeport at that time was one of the 50 most populous cities in the nation and had an elevated rate of influenza deaths.

More: Laura Mezzanotte: Born in a pandemic, died in another

She married Battista Mezzanotte — himself an immigrant from Italy — in 1945, after both the Great Depression and World War II. He became a plumber and she had four children, including John, the oldest, Richard, Lorraine Lynch and Christine Richer.

Laura Mezzanotte was a devout Roman Catholic whose Saturday nights often consisted of going to a church dance with her husband.

And she was a good mother, Richard Mezzanotte said.

“We never wanted for anything,” he said.

'A very loved person'

Devoted to family, Antonia Olmo’s simple life in Deltona revolved around her son and a love of travel, shopping and reading one romance novel after another.

Olmo died on April 5 of coronavirus. She was 78.

“She was an aunt to a lot of people not related to her,” said Olmo’s son, 52-year-old Armando Benitez, who shared his home in Deltona with his mother. “She was a very, very genuine person. She had no enemies. A very loved person.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Olmo moved at age 7 with her family to New York City in the late 1940s, where she fell in love with a city reaching its zenith amid post-World War II prosperity.

More: Coronavirus cuts short life of ‘very loved’ Deltona woman

She stayed there as an adult, working 30 years working in butcher shop backrooms to earn the money to send her three kids to Catholic schools.

By the mid-1990s, Olmo had retired to Florida, eventually moving in with her son Armando in Deltona.

Mother and son were exceptionally close. For most of his life, Armando either lived with his mother or very near to her. They went on six cruises together, and were planning to go on another in September.

“We went everywhere together,” he said. “We were very close.”

'She was Daytona'

Community activist Norma Bland only stood a little more than 5 feet tall, but she commanded a room when she spoke and got things done when she took on a cause in the community.  A regular at Daytona Beach City Commission meetings, she was never shy about saying what was on her mind.

Bland, 71, who spent most of her life in Daytona Beach, was sickened with the virus in June and died on July 31. She had been at Halifax Health Medical Center for at least part of her fight against the virus, and for weeks she was on a ventilator battling for her life.

“She was a fighter,” said Cynthia Slater, head of the local branch of the NAACP and a friend of Bland since they were children. Slater worked alongside Bland on the NACCP’s executive committee.

“She was Daytona ,” Slater said.

More: Coronavirus claims life of Daytona Beach activist Bland

Bland grew up in Daytona Beach and graduated from Campbell High School in 1967. After graduation, she moved to Philadelphia, but returned two decades later to become a force in Daytona Beach.

Mayor Derrick Henry said Bland was someone those running for local elected office would turn to for “insight, information and consultation.”

“If there was a cause on the side of right, that’s where she was,” Henry said. “She was passionate. She spoke truth to power.”

'The heart of an educator'

In his 28 years in the Volusia County school district, Tom Russell was known for being a hard worker, a good listener and a man of faith.

Russell, the former superintendent of Volusia County Schools who was working as principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School, died after contracting COVID-19. Flagler Schools announced his death on Dec. 9 in a press release.

"Tom was a valued member of our district, a person everyone leaned on for advice and counsel," Flagler Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt said in a statement. "He was quick with a smile and word of encouragement. He had the ability to bring calm to the most hectic moments.”

Russell announced in November on the FPC Facebook page that he had COVID-19, and was later hospitalized and admitted to intensive care.

More: Flagler, Volusia schools mourn death of principal, former superintendent Tom Russell

Before joining the team at FPC last year, Russell was superintendent of the Volusia County school district for four years. His contract was terminated in 2019, but before that he was credited with improving the district's graduation rate, cleaning up its schools, getting its finances in order and overseeing significant security changes. 

"He had the heart of an educator,” said Volusia School Board Chairwoman Linda Cuthbert, who worked with Russell. “He was compassionate and always believed in the best of people, and those kinds of educators are very rare."

'My heart breaks for their family'

As the pandemic swept through Volusia County, it heartlessly claimed within 24 hours the lives of a brother and sister, both devoted to public service.

More: Volusia EMS first responder Gerald "Jerry" Jones has died of COVID-19

Gerald Jones, 51, a veteran first responder with the Volusia County Emergency Medical Services team, died Sept. 20 at Halifax Health Medical Center after battling COVID-19. That was one day after his sister, Shyla Pennington, died on Sept. 19, also of COVID-19.

Pennington was a teacher's assistant in the Volusia County School District for nearly two decades and most recently at Sugar Mill Elementary in Port Orange.

The siblings were saluted by area leaders that included Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood and County Manager George Recktenwald, among others.

Pennington was remembered as “a dedicated employee who loved children and also was a devoted mother, daughter, sister and friend to many," by Volusia County Schools spokeswoman Kelly Schulz.

More: Teaching assistant at Port Orange's Sugar Mill Elementary dies after contracting COVID-19

"My heart breaks for their family,” Chitwood said at the time. “I'm praying that they find peace and know that so many of us are wrapping our arms around them.”

Jones’ death was “a tragic and devastating loss for the county,” Recktenwald said. “Jerry was respected and loved by all who knew him.”

'He could fix anything'

Those who knew him will tell you there wasn’t anything mechanical that Justyn Belter couldn’t fix.

“You just can’t imagine,” said Christine Belter, of Ormond Beach, his wife of 57 years. “He could fix anything and he never threw anything out because he could fix it.”

Belter, who traveled the world to distribute and install CO2 systems at breweries and soft drink companies, died on April 8 of the coronavirus. A resident of the Opis Coquina Center in Ormond Beach, he was 84.

Belter’s career with the Wittemann Company in Palm Coast would take him to such far-flung destinations as Saudi Arabia, Russia, India, Turkey and Hong Kong, family members said.

More: Coronavirus: Ormond man loved travel, tales, NASCAR

Volusia County’s NASCAR history was a big attraction for Belter when the couple moved from Buffalo, N.Y., to Ormond Beach in 1980, his wife said. He also liked to tinker with his own vehicles, a collection that included an antique 1929 Ford and a mammoth 1965 Chrysler New Yorker, she said.

“He went down to the see the races a lot,” Christine said. “He was glad to be down here to see NASCAR.”

A passion for music

For Sal Ronci, music was his life, a passion that he also shared with countless others.

Ronci, a public school music teacher for 30 years in South Florida and longtime leader of popular jazz ensembles in Volusia County, died on Nov. 9 due to complications from Parkinson’s disease and the coronavirus. He was 83.

Among those whose lives were changed by the teacher was Lee Michael Morrison, 45, a band student of Ronci’s as a seventh-grader in 1989 at Glades Middle School in Miami.  Morrison went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education at Stetson University on the way to becoming a band director for 14 years at schools that included New World School of the Arts in Miami.

More: For Daytona's Sal Ronci, music was life; bandleader died of coronavirus

“That all started in seventh grade,” Morrison said. “He was truly the best school teacher I ever had. He saw the potential in me, and he saw it in many others, too.”

After his retirement in the mid-1990s, Ronci moved to Volusia County where he and his big-band were fixtures at the Daytona Beach Bandshell, the Peabody Auditorium and other venues.

“He played at the Bandshell often,” said Judy Ronci, his wife of 62 years. “They opened for Bob Newhart at the Peabody and performed at receptions for the London Symphony Orchestra. He was all over the place.”

'He taught me a lot'

Whenever a family member, friend or neighbor needed help, Port Orange resident Paul Lebo was there to provide it.

A man with a big heart and a knack for anything mechanical, Lebo and his helping hands were stilled when he died of coronavirus on July 13 at Halifax Health Medical Center, Daytona Beach. He was 90.

More: Port Orange man was beloved neighbor, family man

“He got sick two days before; it took him down that quick,” said his step-daughter Deborah Pohlmann, also of Port Orange.

Lebo’s wife, Dorothy, also was hospitalized with the virus at the same time, Pohlmann said.

“They put them in rooms next to each other,” she said. “My mom came home and my dad never did.”

Lebo operated an automobile repair shop and other related businesses for many years in New Jersey until moving to Volusia County in 1983.

Along the way, he also served five years at sea on the USS Cone, a U.S. Navy destroyer where he was certified as a utilities engineer.

“If there’s something that needed to be fixed and he couldn’t fix it, it couldn’t be fixed,” said his son George Lebo, 65, who lives in Edgewater. “He taught me a lot.”

'He was always there'

Stories, songs, sports and family were lifelong passions of Richard Eugene “B.B.” Bell.

A longtime Daytona Beach resident, Bell loved to convene Friday night gatherings of friends and family at his home on Jefferson Street, where family members recall that good times rolled with spirited blues music, tall tales and good food.

Bell died of the coronavirus on April 28 at Halifax Health Hospice Ormond Beach Care Center. He was 70.

“He and I would talk a couple times a week, especially on Friday nights when he loved to hear Southern soul blues,” said his older brother Larry Bell, 73, of Long Island, New York. “He’d call me on Friday night and tell me, ‘I cranked it up! I’m getting ready!’”

More: Longtime Daytona Beach resident savored stories, sports and family; died of coronavirus at age 70

Born in Gainesville, Bell moved with his family as a child to Daytona Beach, where he graduated from Campbell Senior High School in 1967. There, he played on the football, basketball and baseball teams, his brother said.

Although Bell worked as a baggage handler for a time at both Orlando International Airport and Daytona Beach International Airport, he spent most of his career as a maintenance worker with the City of Daytona Beach, where he took joy in tending to the city’s sports complexes, his family said.

Bell would pass along his passion for sports to his children and grandchildren, becoming a sideline fixture in later years at youth league games, said Saidah Bell, of Orlando, one of his three daughters.

“The whole time they were playing football, basketball, any sport they were playing, he was always there,” she said. “That’s definitely something that will be missed by all of them.”

'A very giving person'

As a founding member of New Church Family, an independent Christian church in Daytona Beach, Jerry Corlis focused on helping anyone in need, a mission that friends say extended beyond the church’s walls.

“He was a very giving person and he helped many people throughout his life,” said Dennis Brooks, church president. “It’s one of the things that really stands out in my mind about him. He was so generous with his time and efforts. He took in people in need and brought some of them to church.”

Corlis died on died April 11 of the coronavirus after several days of treatment at AdventHealth Daytona Beach Hospital. He was 83.

More: Lost to coronavirus: Holly Hill resident devoted himself to helping others

Born in East Syracuse, N.Y., Corlis moved to Florida in the early 1980s. In Volusia County, he became a longtime businessman and antiques dealer, operating Jerry’s Bargain Barn on Center Avenue in Holly Hill for many years. Later, he would team with his longtime partner, Terry Parnell, to own and operate Terry’s Home Fashions at Nova Road and 6th Street in Holly Hill.

Yet his primary passions were helping the less fortunate and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ community, said another friend and fellow church member, Tom Brown. In 1986, Corlis was among the founding members of New Church Family, a congregation also known for its LGBTQ advocacy.

“His main ministry at the church was basically keeping in touch with anyone sick, in the hospital or a nursing home,” Brown said. Corlis also was a voice for gay rights, organizing Gay Pride events in the early 1990s at a time when such events weren’t as widely accepted, Brown said.

“In the old days, you had to be kind of courageous to have a festival like that,” Brown said. “It was a different climate back then. Jerry was the type of guy who was always very forthright about who he was, his identity.”

'Brave and independent'

In everything from her nursing career to a passion for music and family, Trudy Ziegler embraced life with bravery, strength, independence and joy, according to those who knew her.

“She was always involved in everything,” said her younger brother Ted Kays. “Anything she could do she went and did it. She was always doing something.”

More: Coronavirus: DeLand resident had a passion for music, helping others

That spirited life, defined by consistent concern for others and an enduring love of music, ended when Ziegler died of coronavirus on July 30 at AdventHealth in DeLand. She was 66.

Ziegler and her daughter Amanda Spaur, 35, both of DeLand, tested positive for coronavirus on June 29. Spaur only had mild symptoms, but Ziegler was hospitalized and placed on a ventilator for three weeks before succumbing to the virus.

Ziegler was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where she spent childhood years immersed in an array of activities. Following high school graduation in 1972, Ziegler put herself through nursing school at Purdue University, where she graduated in the top 3% of her class, said her daughter Amanda Spaur, of DeLand.

Ziegler moved to Volusia County in 1987. A year later, she started a long career as a nurse at the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Daytona Beach. There, she coordinated diabetes and AIDS education programs, developing relationships with patients that extended beyond care at the clinic.

“She would go to various nursing homes in the area to make sure the veterans there were being well taken care of, doing extra programs beyond her regular job,” Spaur said.

After taking an early retirement in at age 51, Ziegler and her husband, Charles, bought a campground in Eastford, Connecticut that they would operate for the next 12 years.

“Trudy was, in my mind, a very brave and independent woman, Kays said. “If she decided to do something and go somewhere, she just went and did it."

'Just a good guy'

For Claude Baldwin, motorcycles and the engines that powered them were a lifelong passion.

The joy that Baldwin took from that interest stretched from his teenage years as a student at Mainland High School to the decades that he spent as owner of Claude’s Cycle Service & Salvage, a repair shop on Derbyshire Road in Daytona Beach, said Bonnie Baldwin, his wife of 40 years.

Born in Daytona Beach, Baldwin died on April 25 of coronavirus at Halifax Health Hospice Ormond Beach Care Center. He was 80.

More: Claude Baldwin: motorcycles were his passion

“He started working in a Triumph shop when he was in high school, so he did it since he was a kid,” Bonnie said. “To be in the motorcycle business since you were in high school until you were 60-something, you had to like it.”

In 1982, Baldwin opened the shop that bore his name on property that his uncle owned. He operated it for 20 years, becoming a go-to resource for riders in Volusia County and beyond, Bonnie said.

“Even people up north, when they would come down to the motorcycle races they would come to the shop and see Claude,” she said. “If the kids didn’t have the money for parts, he’d fix it for them and not charge them nothing. He was just a good guy.”

Although Bonnie, also a Daytona Beach native, met her future husband in high school, the couple didn’t wed until she was in her late 30s. Eventually, she would join him in his shop, where she did the bookkeeping as he twisted wrenches on engines.

After he left that business, he worked on lawnmower engines until a stroke in 2008 forced him into retirement. Bonnie became his full-time caretaker until he moved into the Opis Coquina Center nursing home about two years ago.

A second, more recent stroke made him vulnerable to the coronavirus, she said.

“He just wasn’t strong enough to fight it,” she said. “The hardest part was not being able to see him and touch him and tell him goodbye.”

Pat Rice, Mark Harper, Eileen Zaffiro-Kean and Cassidy Alexander of The News-Journal staff contributed to this report.  

This article originally appeared on The Daytona Beach News-Journal: COVID death toll in Volusia and Flagler includes local leaders and beloved family members

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