I heard on Wednesday that 1 in 500 Americans have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a startling statistic that brought to mind Joseph Stalin’s infamous alleged quote, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” Total deaths in the U.S., at more than 662,000, are approaching the number of lives lost during the entire Civil War (follow the CDC’s Data Tracker here).
But on the same day I heard the news of this grim statistic, I heard the news of a tragedy, too—a single death that makes the ECW community a little smaller.
I first met Jon Maiellano years ago at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. He had his wife, Becky, and their three kids in tow, and they were all gamely trying to keep up with Jon’s exuberance about being on the battlefield. The kids had questions after the tour, and we all fell into a great discussion about the battle and the park. It reminded me very much of my own days as a young father coming to the battlefield with my daughter, Steph, and having the historians take time out to talk with us.
Jon and his family returned to the park every year for the annual luminary ceremony on Memorial Day Weekend, and we’d always take time to find each other and catch up. If I was presenting, the family would give me a quick “hello” as they cycled through the tour, and then toward the end of the evening, they’d come back at a time when we could chat. At other times during the year, Jon would swing by the battlefield, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or more of the kids, sometimes with the whole gang. It was always a treat to see them and neat to watch the kids as they grew up. Jon sent me copies of their school pictures over the years, which was always fun.
Along the way, Jon became a big fan of Emerging Civil War. He followed the blog and read our books. Prior to the pandemic, he’d come to last few symposia, tromping around on the battlefields with us as we wounded Stonewall Jackson and explored North Anna.
My favorite memory is the day the whole family stopped by Stevenson Ridge and we spent an hour and a half or so pounding around in the woods, looking at earthworks together.
A few days before this year’s symposium, Becky sent me a note to let me know that it didn’t look like Jon was going to make it to the event. He’d been hospitalized, she told me. I asked her if everything was okay, and that’s when she told me he was actually in intensive care because of COVID. The disease had set in quickly and ravaged his lungs so badly that he needed a lung transplant in order to survive. She and the doctors remained hopeful, though.
That was the first week of August. Within days, doctors no longer thought Jon would live. Becky and the kids had a family meeting and braced for the worst. Jon rallied, though. Everyone held out hope. His family asked for prayers. His blood oxygen levels, so low and so stressed by even just the slightest movement when nurses would shift him in his bed, started to shows signs of stability. Doctors even thought they might be able to wean him off the drugs keeping him in a medically-induced coma.
At some point in the last week, though, Jon lost his eligibility for a lung transplant. His condition had become too weak, his body too ravaged.
Jon’s family lives near York, Pennsylvania. I happened to be driving through that area on Tuesday evening for a roundtable talk. Knowing he was in intensive care, I didn’t try to stop at the hospital to see him, but I sent him well wishes out the rolled-down window of my car as I passed by. I thought he was still holding steady; I had no way of knowing that he was, even then, in his last hours.
By day, Jon worked as a product manager for a flooring supply company, but his real passions was the Civil War. At 44, he retained that kid-in-Mr.-Ed’s-candy-store excitement about being on battlefields. Even more important, he was devoted to his family. He was a family man 110%. I was privileged that he had shared both with me over the years.
All of us who work in public history have friends like Jon: folks we’ve met while on the front lines but who have, over the course of time, become more than just familiar, friendly faces. They’re people we’re always glad to see when they stop by. We catch up, laugh a lot, maybe grab a bite to eat. They are friendships that happen in short bursts over long stretches of years. At the symposium, for instance, we might see friends whom we only see at the symposium, but we see them at each one, year after year, and have become like old friends as a result.
Jon was like that. He and his family were people I was always glad to see. I wish I’d known Jon better, but I’m glad to have known him as much and as long as I did.
It’s fitting that the banner across his Facebook page is a shot he took one year at the luminary at Fredericksburg National Cemetery. Jon is one more light for us to remember.