Editor’s note: This is one of a continuing online series of profiles of the more than 12,000 Hoosiers who have died from COVID-19. The stories are from 12 Indiana newspapers, including The Republic, who collaborated to create the collection to highlight the tremendous loss that the pandemic has created. The series appears daily at therepublic.com.
Names: Joseph and Kye-Shin Kotarski
Ages: 77 and 81
Died: May 6
If you went somewhere with Joseph and Kye-Shin Kotarski, you were likely to come across someone they knew.
Joe knew hundreds of people from bowling and his job, daughter Paula Jones said, and Kye-Shin, known as Shina, was an active member of Indianapolis’ Korean community, where she helped with anything and everything.
The couple was married 55 years before dying four days apart of the novel coronavirus.
Joe was 77 when he died on May 2, Shina 81 on May 6.
Kye-Shin Kang was from Jinju, South Korea, where she was a teacher. To teach, she had to cross a border guarded by the U.S. Army, including a young military policeman named Joseph Kotarski.
“So that’s how they met,” said Jones, who is 48 and lives in Fishers. They married in Korea while Joe was still in the service and married again back in the U.S., where Shina immigrated to be with Joe in 1964.
But Korea never truly left her.
She would go back for about a month each year, Jones said, until she grew older and it became more difficult to deal with jet lag. When stateside, she spent much of her time contributing to the Korean community in Indianapolis.
Jones said her mother, a member of the Korean Catholic Church on the east side, would help with legal questions, translating — anything she could for anyone who needed it.
Jones was one of the couple’s three children. Their son, Al Kotarski, 54, lives in New Palestine, and their oldest daughter, Ruth Abraham, 52, lives in Phoenix. Abraham said her mother’s strong fluency in English made her a great person to lend a hand.
“I read some of the love letters they wrote back and forth,” Abraham said, “Her English was very good.”
The community was also a source of entertainment for the couple, going to picnics and meeting with friends, though Jones said they also had their own hobbies. Shina would go to the golf course every chance she had while Joe spent many hours at the bowling alley.
Joe and Shina would sometimes golf together, Jones said, “but my mom was way more competitive than my dad, so it wasn’t too fun for him.”
They spent time with their four grandkids, as well. Shina enjoyed going to watch her grandson golf with the New Palestine High School team, and Joe, who worked nights, made sure to be available to help his grandkids by day.
Joe worked 37 years on an assembly line for Ford Motor Company, retiring in 2007 when the east-side factory shuttered. Retirement gradually meant less bowling and more trips to the gym, but he didn’t stop working, taking a job with a security company.
They raised their kids to work hard, too, Jones said.
Abraham described her mother as feisty, always saying it the way it was. Her motto was, “If your mom can’t tell you, who can?” Abraham said with a laugh.
Shina showed her children hard work by example, working as a waitress at Heidelberg Haus, a German cafe and bakery on Pendleton Pike, and owning a wig shop in Brightwood Plaza at 25th Street and Sherman Drive.
That doesn’t mean there was no time for fun. It seemed they knew someone everywhere they went, Jones said.
Joe loved the camaraderie of being with his friends from the bowling alley or work.
Shina had friends from the Korean community she contributed so much to. “She probably knew every Korean that walked in Indianapolis and the surrounding areas,” Abraham said.
Together, they meant so much to so many people.
“Indianapolis is a big city but a small town,” she said. “They touched so many people’s lives.”
Joe contracted the virus first. His daughters believe he caught it while working for the security company, where he regularly interacted with people from out of state.
Jones was angry that her father kept working even though he didn’t need to.
“We didn’t like it, and my mom definitely didn’t like it,” Jones said. “But he’s not one to just stay at home and sit around.”
He was taken to the hospital by ambulance on April 27 after barely making it to a doctor’s appointment, Jones said. His oxygen levels were very low.
Shina was hospitalized days later after initially suffering from only a cough, which the family initially attributed to seasonal allergies.
Neither would ever leave the hospital, and they did not get to see each other while inside.
Joe and Shina received the final Catholic sacraments of last rites from a priest. It was the family’s chance to say goodbye.
Wearing protective equipment, two people at a time had 10 minutes with each of their parents. It was horrible, Jones said.
“They were intubated, so they can’t talk,” she said. “They’re sedated. It was just terrible.” She was just happy she could see them and talk to them a final time.
“We’re hoping they heard us,” Jones said.
Joe died on Saturday, May 2. Shina died the following Wednesday.
— Contributed by the Indianapolis Star