Graphic via COURIER. Image of courtesy of George Washington III.
Graphic via COURIER. Image of courtesy of George Washington III.

Washington passed away from COVID-19 on June 24 at the age of 81. “The void he leaves in his community and in our family’s life is unfillable. He was a tremendous human being.”

The number of Americans lost to COVID-19 in just six months is staggering. Get COURIER’s full coverage on crossing this threshold here.

George Washington Jr. could sing. From local musical productions and church choir to athletic events and weddings, his booming voice was well known in Kankakee, Illinois. A native of Louisiana and the son of a concrete mason and Baptist minister, Washington Jr. had called the community home since 1972.

One Fourth of July years ago, he and his sons Brandon and George III retreated to the garage to record their own family rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It was the first and only time they’d ever sung together, despite both younger Washington men having inherited their father’s love for singing. 

“Our age differences, where we lived, our schedules, all those things—we just never got a chance to perform together,” George III told COURIER. 

The video, recorded in 2013, has taken on new significance for George III and Brandon this summer, after their beloved father, George Washington Jr., passed away from COVID-19 on June 24 at the age of 81. 

That loss came just six weeks after their mother Shirley—Washington Jr.’s wife of 52 years—died from complications related to uterine cancer. The losses have been impossible to untangle from one another, especially since George III believes his father contracted COVID-19 from a visitor who attended his mother’s memorial service in late May. 

Within two weeks, Washington Jr. was in the hospital. 

“On June 3, I called 9-1-1 to have him go into the hospital because he could barely get out of bed,” George III said. “On June 6, my father coded. They revived him.”

Washington Jr. was transferred out of the COVID-19 ward and the ICU, and was being prepared to be sent to a rehabilitation facility. But he coded again and was put back in the ICU. Things went downhill from there: He had to go on dialysis, he needed to be intubated, and a collapsed lung needed to be reinflated. 

George III wasn’t able to be a part of the decision-making for most of his father’s hospitalization because he himself also contracted COVID-19 and was sick for nearly three weeks. 

Around 5 a.m. on June 24, George III, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, received a call from his brother Brandon, who lives in Champagne, Illinois, and was managing their father’s care.

Image via George Washington III

“He said, ‘They’ve been working on him for a half hour,’ and I said, ‘We’ve got to let him go. That’s too much.’ For someone to be 81 years old to have had chest compressions and all that revival effort for 30 minutes—there wasn’t a way,” George III said. “I didn’t see a way for him to go forward, so at 5:24, he was pronounced dead.”

George III has struggled to reconcile his father’s death and the hole it’s left in his life. 

“The void he leaves in his community and in our family’s life is unfillable,” he said. Washington Jr. served on the Kankakee County Board for 33 years, rising to the ranks of board vice chairman at one point. “He was a tremendous human being … My father’s impact on where he was and his impact on my life, my brother’s life, my children’s lives—it’s immense. And to not have that resource, to not have that, ‘Let me check in with dad and see what he thinks about this’ … it’s enormous.” 

Nearly three months later, Washington III still finds himself wishing he could pick up the phone and call his father.  “You struggle with it, and it happens almost every day.”

What’s helped Washington III get through the past few months, however, has been the support from his wife, brother, and extended community.

The seven-year-old family video has offered some solace as well.

“This was the first and only time the three of us had sung together, despite our extensive performance histories,” George wrote in the video’s YouTube description. “This is our tribute to him now.”

George Washington Jr. was 81 years old when he died from COVID-19 on June 24, 2020. He leaves behind his sons, George Washington III and Brandon Tomas Washington, and other family members.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story misspelled Brandon Tomas Washington’s name. We regret the error.