Marsh: Remembering grandfather, victim of 1918 Spanish flu

My sister and I knew only one grandparent.

Born in 1879, our paternal grandmother died in Newberg at the age of 94. Her death came in 1973, when I was 25 and my sister 28.

Immigrants from Sweden, my maternal grandfather died in the late 1930s and paternal grandmother in the early 1940s, before my sister and I were born.

Our paternal grandfather — John Joseph Marsh, immigrant from Ireland and husband of the grandmother we knew — died in 1918, at the age of 49. He died in Bellingham, about 90 miles north of Seattle, victim of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

On June 3, 1918, the Bellingham Herald began its report on his passing this way: “John J. Marsh, one of Bellingham’s most genial citizens and for nearly 25 years employed in the fire department of this city, half of that time as its chief...” That was when fire engines were horse-drawn.

Although we did not know our Irish Catholic grandfather, he’s never far from our minds.

My sister’s first name is Mayo, for County Mayo in Ireland, where our grandfather and other family members lived before coming to America. My middle name, John, honors him.

The Spanish flu claimed grandfather John on June 1, 1918. And the blame rests, at least in part, on the federal administration of the time.

A story in a March 2020 edition of the Wall Street Journal reported, “President Woodrow Wilson was so focused on winning World War I that he would not listen to repeated warnings about the pandemic from the chiefs of the Army and Navy, and even from his own personal physician. The U.S. ended up losing 675,000 lives to influenza, compared with 53,000 killed in combat in World War I.” In all, the Journal noted, the world death toll from the pandemic ended up topping 50 million.

That brings us to today.

My sister and I are among those reading about coronavirus and its impact on the world. We never thought there would be anything to seemingly rival what killed our grandfather and millions of others around the world.

This is a worrisome time. We pray research will result in stopping the coronavirus calamity.

Writer Timothy John Marsh, now retired, makes his home in McMinnville. 


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