By Matthew Spina | Reprinted from the Buffalo News | June 19, 2020
For a time in May, a mother and her two daughters were in Olean General Hospital, all attached to ventilators, all struggling with Covid-19.
All had led distinguished lives. All were members of the Seneca Nation’s Heron Clan. And all had made such a mark that the Seneca community now feels an “unmistakable emptiness,” Nation President Rickey Armstrong Sr. said in a statement.
Norma Jean Kennedy, 91, died first, on May 23. Her oldest daughter, Diane L. Kennedy, 71, of Salamanca, died May 29. Diane’s sister, Cynthia J. Mohr, also of Salamanca, died at age 65 on Friday, June 12.
“I don’t know where to begin,” said Marc Papaj, Diane Kennedy’s son. “To lose my mom, my grandmother and my aunt, all three of the matriarchs of our family, has been an absolutely devastating blow to my family.”
Some people in a position to understand the devastation of Covid-19 don’t know of any family in the region taking such a tragic loss in such a short time.
As a board member of the Erie Niagara Funeral Directors Association, Charles F. Castiglia talks with other directors and has cared for the remains of dozens of coronavirus victims at his Castiglia Funeral Home and Erie County Cremation Service. He said he knows of a husband and wife who died within a week of each other. But he knew of no family that lost three members in less than a month. It was actually 20 days.
Lives lost to Covid-19
Before the virus struck them, Norma Kennedy had a broken wrist and the daughters, who were always coming to visit anyway, would help her with ordinary tasks, Papaj said. In time, they were in rooms that were side by side in Olean General’s intensive care unit.
All were fighting, Papaj said. But as the extended family planned his grandmother’s services, his mother died. Soon after, his aunt died. Cynthia Mohr’s mourners came for two days this week. She will be laid to rest Friday.
“There’s no words for this,” he said. He tells people who struggle for something to say that they don’t have to say anything because, he repeated, “there are no words.”
Norma and the late Frank Kennedy had raised their children in Buffalo. Norma Kennedy worked for Calspan, under a top-secret security clearance, her obituary said. In the 1980s, she chartered the first Seneca Nation Human Services Department to advocate for tribal rights and provide social-welfare programs, and she became one of the first Native American-credentialed alcohol counselors.
Norma Kennedy later moved to Syracuse to work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a tribal liaison. She served in Seneca government roles as a clerk, peacemaker, court judge and committee member of the judicial conference.
She spoke the native language and mentored those who wanted to learn it through the Seneca Language Department master apprentice program. “She could always be found at her table, ready to engage in conversation with a cup of Tim Hortons coffee in hand and a huge smile,” her obituary said.
“We are all a very close family, so we did everything together,” said Jessica Ludwick of Wilmington, N.C., Norma Kennedy’s granddaughter and the daughter of Cynthia Mohr. She and other family members have been going through pictures and videos of their travels together and special moments. On Facebook, Ludwick posted one of her and her grandmother in Italy and others of her mother with her grandchildren.
On May 30, she wrote of her thoughts on the death of Diane Kennedy, her “Aunt Didi.”
“She was vibrant and adventurous! She was so funny and would do anything for her family,” she wrote. “I loved every time she called, because I knew she would soon be planning a trip down south. I’d get so excited when the phone would ring with her number because I knew I’d hear “Jessie-Wessie, I’m coming down, is that OK?’
“It was always OK,’ Ludwick wrote.
Diane Kennedy had held a distinguished position, clerk of the Seneca Nation government. Born in Buffalo, she earned a bachelor’s degree from Marymount University in Arlington, Va., and worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., for almost 30 years. After she retired in 2005, she returned to Western New York and became involved in Seneca Nation government, serving as its clerk from 2010-12.
Marc Papaj said his mother fought for 14 days. But with Covid-19, other health complications conspire to make the virus more deadly. “For my mom, it was diabetes,” he said.
During the 28 days that Cynthia Mohr struggled to overcome the virus, her daughter, Ludwick, kept the network of family and friends informed on Facebook.
On May 31: “Mom is stable, still on ventilation and improving with her oxygen levels.”
On June 3: “Mom is continuing to show us all how absolutely amazing she is! She continues to follow/track voices with her eyes and responds with yes and no by nodding to any question asked. The medical staff has talked to her about teaching, reading in the classroom and her grandchildren!”
And on June 10, two days before she died: “We are taking each day moment by moment. This virus is not kind and has given mom some setbacks but she is a fighter and is not giving up! We need prayers for all of her organs to heal, for her to begin to communicate once she has had some time to rest and for complete healing.”
Cynthia Mohr earned a bachelor’s degree from Buffalo State College and, according to her obituary, became the first Native American teacher in the state to have a dual certification in elementary and special education. With a master’s degree from St. Bonaventure University, she taught elementary school for over 36 years and “loved her students like they were her own,” her obituary said. Among her survivors is her husband, Brian, son Travis Mohr of Salamanca, and brother Ralph Kennedy of Steamburg.
Rickey Armstrong Sr., the Seneca Nation president, issued a statement Thursday, as the community mourned.
“Norma, Diane and Cindy were each beloved and well-respected members of our Seneca family, whose passion and spirit made our Nation stronger and our lives better,” he said. “It’s impossible to truly quantify the impact they made in their lifetimes, whether serving the Seneca people, working on important Native American issues, or inspiring generations of elementary school students. Their passing has left an unmistakable emptiness in our Seneca community. They will be missed.”