British Columbia

Married for 68 years, this B.C. couple died 5 hours apart after testing positive for COVID-19

Juanita and Howard Robinson died in a North Vancouver retirement home in early April. Their children are telling their story to highlight the hardship of being separated from loved ones in long-term care and remind people that the seniors killed by the coronavirus aren't just statistics.

Juanita Robinson, 91, and Howard Robinson, 94, lived in long-term care until their deaths in early April

Sharon Robinson is pictured with photos of her parents, Juanita, left, and Howard Robinson. The photo of Juanita is believed to be from the late 1940s. The photo of Howard is from his days in the Canadian Army. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Juanita and Howard Robinson's romance started with double dates and calls to "the dirt department" and ended more than 65 years later as they held hands on their final day together.

The Robinsons died after testing positive for the novel coronavirus in Amica Edgemont Village, a retirement home in North Vancouver that has been the scene of an outbreak.

Juanita, 91, died at 8 p.m. on April 6. Five hours later, Howard died. He was 94. 

The facility reported the deaths in April, but now their family is telling their story.

"It just hasn't quite hit that they're not there," the couple's eldest daughter, Sharon Robinson, said last week. "We just had such a special, long time with them."

Howard Robinson, left, and Juanita Robinson. This 2003 photo shows them at their son's wedding. (Submitted by Sharon Robinson)

Many of the British Columbians who have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, were residents of long-term and assisted-living facilities.

"It's so easy to say, 'Oh, those people were old, they would have died anyway,'" the couple's second daughter, Diana Coleman, said. 

"But they still added value to everyone's life around them, not to mention their own family.

"They still had a lot to give and that was taken away from them."

The Robinsons were living at the Amica Edgemont Village retirement home in North Vancouver when they died. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The 'dirt department'

Howard Robinson was born in Vancouver on Jan. 25, 1926, and grew up in the city.

In 1942, he began a 44-year career with CanCar Pacific, a heavy machinery company. He started as a machinist but eventually became general manager of the company.

At 17, he enlisted in the Canadian Army. He dealt with supplies and was deployed to the Netherlands and France late in the Second World War.

"It took its toll on him," Robinson said. "He suffered as did many, many other very young men."

Howard poses with Juanita as he prepares for the 2018 Remembrance Day ceremony at the Edgemont Village seniors' home. Robinson was a corporal in the Canadian Army. (Submitted by Sharon Robinson)

He met Juanita Jackson shortly after the war through a co-worker and his wife. The four of them went on double dates.

Juanita was born in Vancouver on Aug. 12, 1928, and also grew up in the city.

She briefly worked as a secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture. Robinson and Coleman aren't sure if it was the federal or provincial ministry.

In those days, Robinson said, several government departments could be reached with a single phone number.

When Howard wanted to talk to Juanita, he would dial it and ask for "the dirt department."

Sharon Robinson looks at a needle point art piece made by her mother inside her North Vancouver home. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"That just drove her nuts," Robinson said. "She didn't want anyone to be thinking there was any disrespect for the Department of Agriculture."

Howard and Juanita married in 1951 and moved to North Vancouver.

Juanita became a homemaker and raised three children. She survived breast cancer in the 1960s. All her life, she loved baking, gardening and making needlepoint art.

"She was a very clever, talented lady," Robinson said.

In the summer of 2019, Howard and Juanita moved into Amica Edgemont Village.

A photo of Howard and Juanita Robinson on their 50th wedding anniversary at the Capilano Golf Club. For much of their lives, the golf club was a regular haunt for the Robinsons. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

'Just like Leave It to Beaver'

Both Coleman and Robinson described their parents as a team — they respected and complemented each other.

"It was just like Leave It to Beaver," Coleman said.

Howard was diagnosed with Alzheimer's four years ago, Robinson said. He also survived a heart attack and prostate cancer.

A photo from April 3 shows the couple talking to family on the phone while they stood outside their window. Seven of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are seen in this photo, along with their daughter, Diana Coleman, who is in the back row, second from the right. (Submitted by Sharon Robinson)

They saw their family regularly, but in the past few weeks, those visits were through the window or on the phone as the couple self-isolated and visits were restricted.

"That was the best we could do," Robinson said. "I just feel for everybody and anybody who's got people in these care homes."

Coleman said seniors killed by the coronavirus, like her parents, aren't mere statistics.

"They were mom and dad, and Howard and Juanita, and grandma and grandpa, and great-grandma and great-grandpa," Coleman said.

"We feel a void without their kindness, without their wisdom."

To hear Diana Coleman remember her parents in an interview on The Early Edition, tap here.

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.

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