The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He wore a Superman shirt after surviving kidney failure. He couldn’t beat the coronavirus.

On March 24, Jeff Bagby became the first person to die of the coronavirus in Howard County, Ind. He was 60 years old. “He just never let anything get him down,” said his wife, Christine. (Christine Bagby)
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Jeff Bagby endured the grueling dialysis treatments, the years of praying for a new kidney and the eventual transplant with an attitude so unfailingly upbeat, his wife, Christine, joked that she should buy him a Superman shirt.

She ended up finding one online. Sometimes he wore it beneath a button-up shirt like Clark Kent, with the “S” peeking out from below his collar. Over the years, she added a Superman mug and a bendable action figure as he took on cancer with the same resolve — and survived it, too.

“It was just his personality,” said Christine, who married Jeff in May 1987. “He just never let anything get him down.”

But the coronavirus proved to be a health threat he could not overcome. On March 24, the Chrysler engineer, math whiz and devoted family man became the first person to die of the virus in Howard County, Ind. He was 60 years old.

His loss was felt not only in his hometown of Kokomo, but also in the obscure world of do-it-yourself loudspeaker enthusiasts. He had helped make the highly technical hobby accessible, friends said, freely sharing his speaker designs and answering questions in online forums with thousands of followers. He was sought out at in-person meetups.

“In that niche community, he’s a legend,” said Javad Shadzi of California, a close friend with whom Jeff ran a speaker-building Facebook page. “He’s a giant.”

He lived in Kokomo almost all of his life, leaving only to attend college in Illinois, at a Christian school now known as Judson University. There, he studied math — a natural fit for a man who could solve complicated problems in his head.

After graduation, he worked at a building supplies store, writing up tickets for customers at the service counter. That was where he met Christine, then a recent high school graduate, who was working as a cashier and commented on his clear handwriting.

“The joke was that he offered me a stick of gum and it started from there,” she recalled. “But I don’t know. He had a personality that was just appealing to me.”

They dated for four years before marrying, through Christine’s time in college and Jeff’s start at the Chrysler Kokomo Transmission Plant, the only other job he would ever have. Together they have a son, David, who was born in 2001 and inherited his dad’s mathematical prowess. They taught Sunday school at their church and vacationed in Michigan during the summer.

He called her “the Supermodel.” “Here I am with the Supermodel,” he would say. Or, “The Supermodel will be working tomorrow, so drop in and say hi.” She thought it was a little bit embarrassing, but mostly just cute.

Faith was central to his life, and he knew the Bible as well as he knew math. He would share mini-sermons on his Facebook page, where he wrote earlier this year about the “storms of life.”

“The bad report you just received, the bad news you heard, the tragedy that suddenly hit — Even though this news may have taken your breath away, none of this caught God off-guard and took Him by surprise,” he posted. “He knew it was coming. In fact, He knew every one of your days before one of them came to pass.”

Facebook was also where he connected with other speaker hobbyists. The group he and Shadzi started, the DIY Loudspeaker Project Pad, grew to have more than 23,000 members within just a few years. They shared information and planned in-person events, during which they would listen to one another’s speakers.

While accepting an award from the group in 2018, Jeff called the community “a brotherhood.”

“Something that’s so rare is he was someone who had become extremely good at something but never looked down on anyone,” Shadzi said. “No matter who went up to him, he would help.”

After his death, the group flooded with tributes. Among them: “If there’s any positive, the speakers in heaven will now sound a lot better” and “May you be where the ultimate speaker sound is achieved.” Christine heard from members in places as far-flung as Indonesia.

In the months before the coronavirus struck, Jeff had been in good health, and the couple had started mapping out the years ahead. David was set to leave for college in the fall, and “we were talking about the fact it was just going to be him and I, and the things that we’ll do,” Christine said.

How he got the virus is a mystery. He had not traveled or attended any major gatherings. He became sick before sports were called off, before Disney World shut its doors and before schools went online — when, Christine put it, the virus “wasn’t on your doorstep.”

“Just like we never knew why his kidneys went bad, we’ll never know where he got this virus from,” she said. “I guess a consolation for all of it is he had a very strong relationship with the Lord, and he knew where he was going. He knew this life on earth was not his home.”

His Superman shirt is still tucked away in a drawer. She doesn’t know what she will do with it yet — just that it’s something to hold on to.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the county where Jeff Bagby died. This version has been corrected.