Good days. Bad days. Bill and Anita Thomas saw both over the course of their 61 year marriage. Yet, there was never any question they would be together and that their love for one another and their family was unwavering.
It was that love that helped the Northport couple endure the tragedy that killed their 8-year-old son Eric and took the legs of their 10-year-old son Peter, when they were struck by a snowplow while on a family vacation in Canada in 1974.
It was that love that led Bill to move with Anita, who developed an aggressive form of Alzheimer’s, into an assisted living facility so she didn’t have to sleep alone.
And it was that love, family members say, that led Anita to begin speaking in full sentences for the first time in a year and climb into bed to comfort her husband as he fell victim to COVID-19.
“She told my dad 15 times a day how much she loved him,” Peter Thomas, 56, of Chevy Chase, Maryland, said. “It was nothing short of miraculous.”
“She was amazingly cognizant,” added daughter Kathy Williamson, 58, of Miller Place. “She was so loving. She knew he was sick and she knew her place.”
Bill died on May 1 at a hospice in East Northport from the virus. He was 82. Anita was by his side.
Six days later, on May 7, Anita died of the virus. She was 80.
Anita was born Nov. 22, 1939, in Laubenheim, Germany. She was twice read her last rites at age 4 as she battled diphtheria and pneumonia in a bomb shelter.
Her family immigrated to Long Island in 1949 and eventually bought the Midway Luncheonette in Northport. Bill worked at Betcher’s Butcher Shop across the street. Love blossomed after Bill’s older brother asked Anita’s sister, Kate, on a date. Bill and Anita tagged along.
“The older brother and I didn’t work out that well, but the two younger ones certainly did,” recalled Kate Miller, of Greenwood Village, Colorado.
They married in 1959, started a family and bought a home in Northport.
Tragedy struck on a family vacation. The couple buried one son and suffered a serious injury to another. Peter, who lost both legs below the knee, was sent to Craig Rehabilitation Center in Colorado and learned to walk again in time to join his fifth grade class.
“The loss of their youngest child deeply wounded Anita and Bill throughout their lives and shook their faith for a time, but to their credit, they never let it show,” Peter Thomas recalled. “Anita was always the most positive person in the room with Bill steadfast by her side. What easily could have driven the family apart brought them closer together than ever.”
The couple devoted themselves to helping others.
Anita became a special-education teacher in Half Hollow Hills School district. Bill taught middle school science and health in the South Huntington School District for 33 years, becoming head of the teacher’s union. An unexpected windfall from an investment was used to form a trust in Eric’s name. That trust is now being distributed to charities on Long Island that help children with disabilities, Peter Thomas said.
The couple hosted families from Haiti whose children had traveled to the area to have surgery. Anita, who was awarded Northport Rotary Club’s Rotarian of the Year in 2016-17, personally collected 21,000 pairs of used shoes for people in developing nations in 2018.
Their children flourished. Peter Thomas went to law school at Georgetown University and became a health care and disability lawyer. Kathy is the owner of a real estate business on Long Island. They both married and each have three sons.
Anita was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her late 70s. The couple moved into The Bristal in East Northport. Bill kept their house but slept with Anita every night.
“He said when we’re asleep," Williamson said, "we’re together and she’s by my side.”
The arrangement worked until The Bristal went into lockdown in March. Williamson noticed her father struggling during a FaceTime call on April 23.
“He said if you don’t come get me, I’m going to die here on the couch,” she said.
Hours later, after The Bristal told Peter Thomas they had had nine residents die from the virus, Williamson took her parents out and had them tested. Anita was negative, but Bill was positive.
Peter Thomas drove up from Maryland and the children took care of their parents in the house they grew up in. Bill quickly got sicker, but insisted he did not want to go to the hospital. They tried to hire help but everyone canceled when they found out about the virus.
There was no explaining social distancing to Anita, who stayed by his bedside without a mask.
After six days, the siblings made the wrenching decision to move their father to hospice. Anita went with him. That night, 135 people joined the family in a Zoom prayer vigil. Bill died the following day, May 1.
“He passed when she was in his room,” Williamson said. “They were together at the end.”
By then, Anita, Peter and Kathy all tested positive. Without her husband, Anita went quickly downhill and died six days later in hospice.
“It’s almost like a novel,” Peter said. “They were such good people and they were meant to be together. They don’t make people like my parents anymore.”
On May 13, Northport celebrated the love of a couple who had met there as teens and stayed on to raise a family. A procession of 100 cars drove past their childhood homes, the former luncheonette and butcher shop and the home they owned for 55 years.
They were buried at Northport Rural Cemetery next to Eric.