The Proulxes thought they were leaving Minnesota for their winter home in Yuma, Arizona, just in time.
Jim and Judy Proulx departed Cloquet in early December as COVID-19 case rates spiraled out of control in Minnesota. Meanwhile, the rates in Arizona had dropped significantly since the heights they reached over the summer.
Jim, 82, and Judy, 81, went to Yuma with their recently retired son, Jimmy Proulx, and his wife, Viv. The hope was in Arizona the couple could be outside more. Judy used a walker, and the Minnesota winters posed a challenge, said Tom Proulx, another of their three sons.
COVID-19 found them before they left their winter home, however. Jim was diagnosed with the disease caused by the new coronavirus in mid-December and ended up in the hospital three different times over the next few weeks. The final time he was in the intensive care unit, and Jimmy was the only one able to see his father. He knew things looked grim.
The Proulxes wanted to administer the Anointing of the Sick, a Catholic ceremony for those who are in danger of dying from illness. However, not even priests were being admitted to the hospital at that time, Jimmy said.
“The nurse told us, ‘I’ve got a priest who is a good friend — I’ll get him in,’” Jimmy said.
The priest was able to see Jim, but as he laid in a hospital bed, Judy developed a bad cough, according to Jimmy. What was initially thought to be bronchitis had begun to manifest itself as COVID-19.
“We actually had a conference call with my mother,” Tom said. “So me, Todd (Proulx), Jimmy and my mom were on a conference call and we said that ‘You need to get into the hospital’ because we thought she was dehydrated.”
They called an ambulance to pick Judy up so she wouldn’t be left in a waiting room. As the medics were loading her into the ambulance, Judy’s life slipped away. The nurse caring for Jim had to inform him that his wife of more than 61 years had died.
Jim died just a few hours later.
Jim and Judy started dating as freshmen at Cloquet High School and were married Nov. 21, 1959. Jim worked as head custodian for the Cloquet School District and drove a bus for Cloquet Transit Co. for more than 35 years.
“My dad was a custodian, but he was the best damn custodian ever,” Todd said.
Todd and some of his friends from high school remembered times his dad would open the gym for them to play basketball and would even let them play music over the school intercom system.
Peter Szyman, a neighbor of the Proulx family, remembered being surprised to see Jim behind the wheel of the bus.
“We’d have a basketball game or something and you’d get out to the bus and there’d be Mr. Proulx,” Szyman said. “I’d think ‘I thought he was the custodian,’ but it seemed like everywhere you went, there was Mr. Proulx, and I can never remember seeing him grumpy.”
Judy was a stay-at-home mom when her three sons were young, but as they grew, she went back to work as a special education teacher in Cloquet.
The couple welcomed their sons’ friends into their home, many times spending hours talking or even playing cards with the group. Even after their sons left home, people would stop by to check in.
“I would just swing in, walk through the garage and come in the back door and say ‘knock-knock,” Dave Perkkio said. “It was always an open door, and you could always go in there and feel welcome — they were just fun.”
While the Proulxes were ubiquitous around Cloquet during the school year, during the summer they would load up their camper and travel the country, typically ending up at the annual Starcraft Camper Club rally.
Jim was an “amusement park junkie,” according to Todd, and on one summer trip the family hit seven different theme parks.
Tom also fondly remembered a trip he took with his mother to Ireland a few years ago.
“It was just her and I — it was a Christmas gift and that’s where she wanted to go,” Tom said.
With their parents dying within hours of each other, their sons also made the decision to have Jim and Judy cremated together.
“It made more sense to me when I was talking to the mortuary,” Tom said. “We asked if we could cremate them together and they said, ‘absolutely,’ so their ashes are mixed.”
Tom said his parents were careful and cognizant of the risks of COVID-19, taking all the precautions they could to prevent it, but Jimmy said he believed something else killed his mother.
“I believe totally that COVID definitely got my dad, but not my mom,” Jimmy said. “She died of a broken heart.”