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World War II veteran and his son die of COVID-19 days apart

Leroy Tonic Sr. is seen at the John A. Wilson Building after being honored by the District of Columbia City Council in 2019.

JOHN KELLY/THE WASHINGTON POST

By JUSTIN WM. MOYER | The Washington Post | Published: May 13, 2020

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WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, the Tonic family planned to gather in the District of Columbia for a reunion. It was an event planned for dozens of people from branches of the family living as far away as New Jersey, Atlanta and Florida.

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the family has since lost two members. The Tonic patriarch and his son — Leroy Tonic Sr., 96, a lauded World War II veteran, and Leroy Tonic Jr., who was reconnecting with family after a long stretch in prison — died within days of one another this month after contracting COVID-19 in D.C.-area nursing homes.

“It was going to be a huge celebration and feels as though COVID took it from us,” said Jacqueline Tonic, daughter of Leroy Tonic Jr. “I just don’t understand how it happened.”

Leroy Tonic Sr., the youngest of 11 children, was born in Rocky Mount, N.C. He was drafted into the Navy, serving at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and training facilities in Washington state, then was discharged honorably in 1946.

The elder Tonic was honored last year by the District Council after his name appeared among more than 1,800 others painted in gold on a plaque honoring D.C. government employees who served in World War II. Once on display outside the John A. Wilson Building, the plaque was broken during a renovation and was stored in a closet without the topmost panel explaining what it was for. Officials only solved the mystery four years ago.

At the time of the ceremony, the elder Tonic, who suffered from dementia, was living in the Prince George’s County nursing home where he would contract COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

After his wife, who lived with him in the home, died in 2017, family members expected his condition to deteriorate, but the music lover surprised them. “He would be up and dancing and doing things that a normal 95- or 96-year-old wouldn’t be doing,” said Haleem Tonic, a grandson who accompanied him to the D.C. Council ceremony.

He remembered his grandfather as the man who taught him how to play cards and pool — and who looked after him when his own father, who died of a brain aneurysm in the 1990s, wasn’t around.

“He definitely was a role model for me,” Haleem Tonic said. “He was my hero. He was my best friend and I loved him to death.”

Leroy Tonic Sr. died of COVID-19 on May 2, five days before his 64-year-old son.

Leroy Tonic Jr. spent much of his life behind bars, according to daughter Jacqueline Tonic. She said her father was released in 2016 and set about rebuilding the relationships he left behind.

Family members weren’t familiar with details of his criminal history. Public records show convictions for armed carjacking and drug charges by someone with his name and age.

“We all make decisions in life that we wish we hadn’t,” she said. “We’re dealing with them and overcoming them and taking new strides to be better people. I feel like my father did that. He paid whatever his price was.”

After her father’s release, Jacqueline Tonic said her relationship with her father had improved. She helped him navigate dialysis appointments at the D.C. nursing home where he lived and readjust to society. When he wanted to get potatoes at a chicken restaurant, she was the one to break the news it no longer existed. He had to settle for fried fish boxes and crab balls.

She also was with her father in his final months, during which he was hospitalized twice before his death on May 7. She said she struggles to understand how a person can contract the virus in a nursing home where staff are supposed to take precautions.

“You think they are safer than we are,” she said. “They’re protected by a sterile environment. They are professionals. … In these instances, it failed.”

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