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'Perseverance:' Project chronicles stories of COVID in Illinois

Amanda Riggenbach was the project manager for the Tumultuous 2020 project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
Collin Schopp
Amanda Riggenbach was the project manager for the Tumultuous 2020 project at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic,after recording more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and 4,291 deaths. On March 13, the Trump Administration declared a nationwide emergency and issued a travel ban on non-U.S. citizens from 26 European countries.

The CDC announced the first laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 death in the United States just a few weeks earlier, on Feb. 29. Over the ensuing weeks, months and then years, millions of lives would be lost and aspects of day-to-day life would fundamentally change.

Amanda Riggenbach, the project manager of the Tumultuous 2020 project at Springfield's Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, spent a year documenting COVID in Illinois.

“I think there's no better way to get to know a person than over food, and or you just over coffee, over drinks, anything because it really sets them at ease, you know, you don't have to look awkwardly constantly at them,” said Riggenbach. “So yeah, so just meeting in person. It's a very natural conversation.”

Riggenbach would have around 45 of those conversations between August 2021 and August 2022. The pandemic invoked strong, sometimes traumatic, emotions in people, so every interview started with a pre-interview to make sure the topic wasn’t too recent and raw for the subjects.

“We understand that the person's comfort is more important, and making sure that they aren't putting themselves at risk by telling you the story, there's always going to be another person who's willing to share that story,” said Riggenbach. “So, you don't want to put someone in unnecessary, you know, pain.”

After the pre-interview, Riggenbach’s conversations usually last around two hours. She said the longest was five hours, with some breaks. In total, Riggenbach and collaborators collected more than 80 interviews, totaling more than 100 hours of audio.

“It really just amazed me how much, you know, going through these 85 different people to find the fact that there's this theme of survival, this theme of perseverance,” she said. “Even though all of these people had such different experiences, they're geographically diverse, you know, coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Interviews includehealth professionals, small business owners, funeral home directors, high school sports officials and many more. With the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations such a polarizing topic, Riggenbach was met with a wide range of levels of concern and vaccination status.

“The way that they came to their conclusions about their vaccine status were thoughtful, and, you know, my opinions on all of it was something I really worked hard to not reveal,” she said. “As an oral historian, you really have to be someone where everyone can tell their story to you, you can't just be someone who is engaging with the person you agree with.”

Riggenbach, a Peoria native and Bradley University graduate, conducted several interviews in the Peoria area. They included a Bradley University professor who was part of the vaccine trials, a student activist and a bus driver for Peoria Public Schools.

“Everyone just adapted in such unique ways,” she said. “And it makes me proud to be from Peoria to be among such amazing humans.”

Several stories stuck with Riggenbach after the conclusion of the project. One of them is Marc Ayers, state director of the Humane Society.After losing his immuno-compromised mother to COVID, his sister wrote an obituary that drew international attention.

“They wrote this obituary that, you know, said she was preceded in death, you know, by the amount of people who had passed away from COVID at that point and partially at the hand of the people who haven't been vaccinated,” Riggenbach said. “They were very, very blunt in this obituary.”

Following his mother’s death after three weeks on a ventilator, the family received a wave of support and condolences from strangers, but also death threats, trolling and hate.

“That story really sticks out to me because I think it emphasizes the very real parts of the virus, but also the very real polarization that we were going through at that point,” said Riggenbach, adding she still thinks about the family a lot.

“I think they’re doing well,” she said. “But at the end of the day, they’ve lost their mom.”

Some of the stories Riggenbach heard were of transformation, change and resilience.

Katie Norregaard taught pre-school music at the start of 2020, but had recently accepted a job away from her musical passion. When everything shut down, she began posting YouTube videos that eventually evolved into a business with live music lessons. Miss Katie Singsofficially became an LLC in September 2020.

“Her story really stands out to me as just like, thank goodness, some people had good experiences,” said Riggenbach.

Overall, Riggenbach came away from the experience believing that Illinoisans are strong and resilient, noting no two people experienced the pandemic the same way.

“I learned that, you know, everyone has such a unique perspective that is impacted by their past experiences. And just to kind of follow that thread and really understand that people aren't coming to conclusions about the pandemic, you know, sometimes there is ignorance,” she said. “But really, I think we should give people more credit.”

You can find a full archive of the interviews for the Tumultuous 2020 projecthere.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.