Since the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States in March, there have been sporadic stories of tragedy — multiple members of the same family dying of Covid-19 — in far-flung parts of the country like New York City and southwestern Georgia.
What once would’ve seemed unimaginable in rural East Tennessee has now hit close to home, impacting both the Oneida and Coalfield communities in Scott and Morgan counties.
On Wednesday, Jan. 13, Jared Henry became the third member of the close-knit Henry family to die of coronavirus. He was just 47.
Henry’s death came just five weeks after his older brother, Keith Henry, also died of the virus. But “older” is a relative term. Keith Henry was only 54.
In between, the brothers’ mother, Brenda Pemberton Henry, also died of the virus, just three days before Christmas. She was 77.
There have been at least 31 coronavirus-related deaths in Scott County, and at least 14 in Morgan County. But none have impacted the two communities any more than the tragedy of the Henry family.
It has been well established that the majority of people infected by coronavirus will suffer only mild illness. As viruses go, Covid-19 is relatively deadly. In Scott County, the death rate has risen to 1.6% — which is brow-raising when you consider that seasonal flu has a death rate of somewhere around 0.2%. Still, while at least 10% of the population in Scott County has been infected with Covid-19, only a few dozen — fewer than 4 in 100 of those who’ve become sick — have required hospitalization. Even among the most at-risk age groups, contracting Covid-19 isn’t a death sentence; a majority will survive.
But for reasons medical researchers don’t fully understand, the virus impacts some more than others. And that severe impact may not be as random as it seems. More and more, researchers believe some people are genetically predisposed to serious illness from Covid-19. Studies have identified certain genetic traits — including one that determines ABO blood groups — that place people more at risk.
The genetic factor leads to tragic stories of entire families facing life-or-death fights against coronavirus. Even before the Henry family became ill, nurses from Scott County who work at hospitals outside the community told stories of entire families hospitalized together — sometimes elderly parents and their adult children in the same hospital covid unit.
Keith and Jared Henry coached together at Coalfield School. That’s where both wound up in 2005, after they left Oneida. Known by their high school nicknames, Rock and Peb, they both played under the legendary Jim May at Oneida and later coached at together their alma mater. At Coalfield, Rock eventually succeeded Gary Kreis as head coach, while Peb was his defensive coordinator.
The Henrys coached the Yellow Jackets in the Class A state semifinal game on Nov. 27, the day after Thanksgiving. It was a disappointing ending to a successful season, as the previously-undefeated Yellow Jackets lost, 42-0.
Just eight days later, Rock died at his home of Covid-19.
Even as his brother’s funeral was being planned (Rock was buried at Estes-Western Cemetery in Coalfield a week after his death), Peb was becoming seriously ill. His struggle with Covid-19 was one that has become all too familiar to health care workers: he was first hospitalized, then intubated. Later, he was transferred from a hospital in Knoxville to a hospital in Lexington, Ky., where more specialized care could be delivered. There were signs — even as recently as just a few days before his death — that his condition was improving.
But on Wednesday, more than a month into his fight against Covid-19, word reached back to Oneida and Coalfield that the younger Henry had died. On Sunday, he was buried at the same Coalfield cemetery as his older brother.
Both communities called the Henry family their own. Dolphus — a veteran of the U.S. Navy — and Brenda Pemberton Henry were originally from Scott County. They both graduated from Robbins High School, Dolphus in 1955 and Brenda five years later, and were married for 57 years. They spent most of their lives in Oneida, where he worked in industry and she was a beautician. And where their sons played football under Coach Jim May. They were both active in Barton Chapel in Robbins, as well.
By 1991, as Oneida was priming for its greatest success on the gridiron, Rock had graduated and become an assistant coach at Oneida. Peb also graduated that spring and headed off to school at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. (He would return to Oneida in 1995 as a middle school teacher and football coach.)
The following year, Rock was a part of May’s staff as the Indians won the school’s first state championship in football. Five years after that, when Rock was the Indians’ defensive coordinator and Peb was the head coach of the middle school football program at Oneida, the Henrys’ future changed when May died suddenly of a heart attack during a football game.
Later, Rock and May’s son, Jimmy May, would be named co-head coaches of the Indian program. Rock coached the defense and Jimmy May the offense. Peb moved to the high school ranks to join their staff.
Following the 2004 season, changes were made. Feelings were hurt. Oneida only said publicly that it had decided to move away from the co-head coach setup. The Henry family — Rock and Peb, and their parents — all moved to Coalfield, where the two brothers joined Kreis’s coaching staff and where Rock would become head coach following Kreis’s retirement in 2008. (Dolphus Henry died in the spring of 2019.)
But the influence of the Henry family — especially the coaching influence of Rock and Peb — remains strong in Scott County. They still have friends here; among their family members are an uncle, Ledford Henry of Robbins. A cousin, Eric Henry, is athletics director at Scott High. But they have far more friends here than family, and Scott County has mourned the trio of deaths alongside Coalfield and Morgan County.
The story of the Henry family has been a tragic reminder that it isn’t just the elderly or those with significant underlying illness who are at risk of covid complications. Coronavirus has run the gamut of humanity in Scott County in recent weeks; its victims include at least one death involving someone in their 20s. But because of their positions and their influence in two separate communities, the Henry family has been the most visible reminder of the virus’s sometimes harsh impact.