Not Forgotten: Alabama’s COVID Dead

The First Person Known to Die in Alabama After Contracting COVID-19 Never Let Her Disability Define Her

Jenny McDonald, the first Alabamian to die after being diagnoed with COVID-19.

STEVENSON – Chicken has been gone since March 23, and things have not been the same for those who knew her, worked with her, loved her.

Her full name was Thelma Jenny McDonald. Most folks called her Jenny, but among family and close friends, she had been Chicken since she was small. Just why, it’s not clear now, but Chicken was a term of endearment. Now it’s a term of bereavement.

Born and raised in the northeastern corner of Alabama, Jenny McDonald was the first Alabamian to die after testing positive for the coronavirus. Loved ones say she’d had the shivers and nausea, had been in need of fluids and her kidneys had not been working right. She was just 53, and she had been living with her sisters Nannie and Mary in the Milltown section of Stevenson, a Tennessee Valley town that stands on land where Cherokees once lived, where Union soldiers held sway for much of the Civil War, and where freight trains run regularly past the old downtown depot.

She was a special needs child, the youngest in a 12-member family that included siblings and step-siblings, but with schooling, training and support, she made her way in life and made a mark, not just with what she did but how she went about doing it. Whether she was shredding paper at the Jackson County Courthouse, giving snacks to patients or residents at the Highlands Medical Center complex in Scottsboro, joining in the local Knights of Columbus council’s annual Tootsie Roll drive, or singing in the choir at Morning Star Baptist Church, she was intent on looking her best.

Her best meant big rings, bracelets and earrings, stylish handbags, her hair looking just so. If those features did not get your attention, her smile would. And if she knew you well enough, chances are she would goof with you, like the time she started calling one of her Tootsie Roll drive colleagues “Momma Chicken” and the colleague’s granddaughter “Little Chicken.” Or the way she would give friends at the courthouse hairstyle tips after they had complimented her latest look. Or when she would say she was from the police department during one of her frequent morning phone calls to her sister-in-law Dorris Hutchins.

Stevenson, Alabama (Photo by Tom Gordon)

“I don’t think any of us will forget her,” said Sara Haynes, executive director of The Arc of Jackson County, an agency that placed Jenny in her courthouse and hospital jobs and provided her support when she needed it.

“More people knew Jenny than I knew because of her personality,” Dorris said.

Chicken knew she was different. She was aware when others noticed it. “They think my mind’s bad,” she would tell Dorris. That awareness seemed to spur her on, to show she was not as constrained by her condition as others might think.

“If you tried to do it for her, she wanted to show you that she could do it herself,” Dorris said.

She liked predictable patterns and routines with family and friends, and if someone tried to do something in a way that was different from how she was accustomed to doing it, she would correct them. With the Morning Star Baptist choir, one of Jenny’s favorite songs was the Shirley Caesar gospel hit, “I Find No Fault in God.” Dorris played piano to accompany her, but if Dorris started playing a prelude, Jenny, eager to start singing, would let her know, “You’re not playing it right.’’

Her faith was fundamental, unwavering. She had a knack of letting people know they had value and when she did that, they saw value in her.  A while back, her sister Martha Evans was going through a rough patch and they talked about it. “Don’t you worry about it, the Lord’s going to work it out,” is what Martha remembers her sister saying.

“She was my sister but she also was my friend,” Evans said. “We could talk.”

Dorris tells a similar story from years back. She was a believer, but she had lapsed in the practice of her faith. Then one day, Jenny, who liked to give people simple gifts, gave her a printed Bible verse from the Book of John: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

“My life was never the same after that,” Dorris said.

Comfortable in the confines of her church, Jenny was also at home in the Goodwill Store or the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro. On half-price days and other days, she and an entourage that included her sisters Mary, Nannie, Queenie and Martha, Martha’s daughter Jennifer, Dorris and sometimes even Martha’s husband, George, would sweep through the Goodwill. Jenny would always make her way to the jewelry counter. Seeing something she wanted to buy and being told she didn’t need it, she would go ahead and buy it anyway. Sometime after her death, the group returned to the Goodwill and there were bittersweet moments when one of them happened upon a handbag or a piece of jewelry and said, “Jenny would buy this.” At another moment, Jennifer Evans told her mother, “Momma, it just isn’t the same without her.”

On March 15, a Sunday about a week before she died, about a dozen or more family members gathered after church at the Western Sizzlin’ in Scottsboro to celebrate Jenny’s birthday. By that time, folks in the county Revenue Commissioner’s Office, where she did her paper shredding, had given her a little party and sung Happy Birthday to her. At that point, Gov. Kay Ivey had declared a public health emergency because of COVID-19, and the first Alabamian to test positive for the virus was in isolation in Montgomery.

T-shirts were made to remember Jenny McDonald. (Photo by Tom Gordon)

But nothing seemed amiss on this day. It was a good, noisy time, and being with so many loved ones always made Jenny happy. Before it ended, she put a roll of bills in Dorris’ hand because she wanted to pay part of the tab. Dorris took the money but hid it under her plate, planning to give it back to Jenny or spend it on her in some way.

Sadly, Dorris never got that opportunity. But at Morning Star Baptist, the group known as the Women of Purpose is giving people an opportunity to honor Jenny’s memory. The group has a fund it uses for purposes such as helping children with school fees or buying medicine or food for the financially pressed. Now, to give the fund a boost, it is selling T-shirts.

The shirts are gray. Printed on them, in Chicken’s favorite color of yellow, are the words, “A Penny for Jenny.”