Kentucky dedicates memorial to honor those lost to COVID-19

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Tears flowed as Jan Peterson gazed at the new Kentucky COVID Memorial on Wednesday, recalling a lifetime of memories with her husband, who died from the virus in the fall of 2021.

Wanting to honor her husband and other Kentuckians who died from COVID-19, 72-year-old Peterson attended the dedication ceremony for the memorial on the grounds of Kentucky’s Capitol.

“Looking back, it’s hard to believe it ever really happened,” she said in an interview. “All the changes that have occurred since then. All I know is I miss him a lot and I know that other people feel the same pain.”

Her husband, Larry Peterson, was an Army veteran who had a long career in state government, working in coal mining permits, she said. He was a geologist, a cave explorer, an avid Pittsburgh Steelers fan and had a love of learning. Their two adult children were unable to attend the ceremony.

Larry Peterson was 73 when he died – among more than 18,600 Kentuckians to succumb to the virus.

Speaking at the dedication, Gov. Andy Beshear said the memorial stands as a lasting tribute to those who died and to health care workers who displayed courage and selflessness while treating COVID patients.

“While we managed to get through so much adversity, pain and loss, this scale is something that we’re going to be living with and processing for years to come,” the governor said.

“That’s why we made the decision to build this memorial,” he said. “Because I wanted everyone who has lost someone to this virus to know that their loved one is important and they are missed. And that we in Kentucky will not bow to politics. We will recognize the loss that we have been through.”

Asked afterward what he meant by his “not bow to politics” remark, the Democratic governor replied: “Just because talking about something is difficult doesn’t mean that you don’t do the right thing. This was the battle of our lifetime. It was very serious, and we should not diminish it.” Beshear is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign this year in Republican-leaning Kentucky.

The memorial – titled “United We Stand, Divided We Fall” – was designed and sculpted by Kentucky native Amanda Matthews. The final design for the memorial was selected by an advisory panel that included health care workers, family members of those lost and COVID-19 survivors.

The memorial features several figures around a central column that supports a giant reflecting sphere containing the state’s motto and seal. Matthews said the memorial reflects “the ideals, visual symbols and embodiment of the phrase ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall.’”

The memorial fund was supported by numerous donations, including from health care systems, the governor’s office said. No tax dollars were used, it said.

Beshear was only months into his term as governor when he was thrust into leading the state’s response to the global pandemic. The governor has said that early projections indicated the death toll from COVID-19 could soar to 80,000 or more in Kentucky. He became a fixture on statewide TV throughout the pandemic, with press conferences that were part pep talk and part sermon on how to limit the spread of the virus. He would read the age, gender and home county of the people who died.

During a ceremony Wednesday that included songs and prayer, Beshear praised the sacrifices of health care workers, hospitals, law enforcement officers and other front-line emergency workers. He talked about the massive logistical challenges in organizing drive-thru COVID testing and distributing vaccines.

“I hope that all Kentuckians can come to this memorial and to see what they did to help us to get through this and to get through it together,” the governor said Wednesday.

Afterward, the governor comforted Jan Peterson as they chatted near the memorial.

Before the ceremony, Peterson was asked what she thought of the memorial. She replied: “It’s beautiful. Emotional. I appreciate the state of Kentucky for recognizing what happened here and what’s happened all over the world. And I appreciate Gov. Beshear a lot.”

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