EAST PALESTINE, Ohio (WYTV) – Earlier this month over a three-day span, an East Palestine couple well-known in the community both died after testing positive for COVID-19.
Tom and Shirley Birnesser, married for 68 years, were high school sweethearts. They had two children — Tim and Kathy.
“Everything was family-oriented from day one with all my aunts, and uncles and grandparents growing up,” Kathy Mackall said. “We did a lot as a family, we always have.”
“I would say they were leaders,” said Tavia Birnesser, their great-granddaughter. “I mean, they definitely kept us all together and they were always at every function that they could ever be at.”
“We always had big cookouts and parties, holidays. Bowling was always a big thing for my grandma,” Tonya McMillan said.
Shirley was also a longtime teacher’s aide in the East Palestine School District, where she was affectionately known as Mrs. B.
Tom was best known as the owner of the T&S Amoco downtown.
On March 30, Kathy was called to their house.
“We were going down to take her to the doctor’s but that morning, she was so bad, she couldn’t even get out of bed. So my brother met us there with my daughter and granddaughter, and we had to call two ambulances and they both were taken to the hospital then.”
Shirley died April 17 at 86 years old.
Tom died April 20. He was 87.
Kathy said having them pass from the same illness three days apart was God’s will.
“I believe it was. One would have been lost without the other one after all these years because when we called to tell her we were taking her to the doctor’s the day before, she said she was not leaving my dad. But the next morning, she was so bad, she was ready to go. So I think it was better that they went close in time like that.”
Kathy also tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized. Now she’s recovering at home.
She said the hardest part is lack of closure — the family couldn’t say goodbye.
“You don’t get to see them after they were taken in the ambulances.”
She, Tonya and Tavia all spoke lovingly of Tom and Shirley, not wanting to dwell so much on how they died but rather, how they lived.