The Deseret News is compiling a list of Utahns lost to the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, we hope to chronicle some of the stories of those who’ve died to better understand how our lives have changed because of COVID-19. If you have lost a friend or family member to COVID-19, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WEST POINT — Kirwan Checketts was prepared to enjoy all the usual delights associated with the annual family Christmas party.
It usually included favorite foods, white elephant gifts, extended family and lots of laughs. But about 10 years ago, the party was different thanks to his mom, Darla Checketts.
“We didn’t know exactly what we were going to do,” he said. “It was a surprise to us and our cousins. ... She planned a family get-together where we did a service project. We helped unload and sort coats for the homeless shelter. ... It was a good surprise.”
For the preteen and his four siblings, it had a profound impact.
“It just gave us more of an idea of what Christmas is really all about,” he said. “It’s more about giving, the sharing, the love that we have as a human race with each other.”
It was just one of the ways in which Darla Checketts tried to teach her children to have love and empathy for other people.
“She was always teaching us about service,” he said. “If I had to describe my mom, compassionate would be the No. 1 thing. She was loving, caring, very outgoing and determined.”
Now those lessons, those memories and the love that accompanied them are what help Kirwan Checketts as he mourns his mother, one of the 300 Utahns lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. She died June 23 at the home she shared with her husband Cameron in West Point.
Born in Ontario, Oregon, Darla Checketts was the oldest of four children raised in Kaysville. She graduated from Davis High School in 1980, and was a Sterling Scholar in home economics. She spent nine summers in West Yellowstone, Montana, earning money to pay for a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University in home economics education. She served in the Peace Corps and taught high school in Sierra Leone, West Africa, for two years, according to her obituary.
She also taught for five years in Malad, Idaho. In June of 1989, she married Cameron Checketts in the Logan Utah Temple, and they had five children and three grandchildren. She was a career and technical education teacher at Ben Lomond, a job she started in August of 2016.
Julie Bracken, who was on the panel that hired Checketts, said Darla’s approach made sure no child was left out of the lessons.
“She brought a closeness with the kids,” Bracken said. “She had the kids’ best interest at heart, truly. She was a CTE teacher, so she taught foods, and she wanted to make sure we taught recipes that were simple enough that the kids could afford to buy the ingredients and make the food for their families. She wanted it to be a real life skill, preparing them for life.”
Bracken said Checketts taught her to make sure the instruction reached every child.
“If it’s not working for all of the kids, (we have) to stop and look at it and decide what else we can do to (help) those one or two kids get it,” Bracken said. “She was just an amazing woman. She really cared a lot about people.”
Kirwan Checketts got sick with COVID-19 first. He’d recently returned from a Latter-day Saint mission to New Mexico, and he believes he got sick at work and brought the new coronavirus home to his parents.
He and his dad had very minor symptoms, something similar to a cold or allergies.
“My mom was sick for almost two weeks,” Kirwan Checketts said. “She started to develop more symptoms just a few days before she passed.”
Among those symptoms were severe lung congestion, a heavy dry cough, body aches, nausea, and an inability to sleep.
“Two days before she died, that’s when it became really bad,” he said. “She did a video call with our family doctor, and he thought it not good, but it wasn’t bad enough, well, it didn’t seem like she needed hospitalization.”
The doctor prescribed her some cough medicine, and he thinks his mother took it just once.
“She died at home, in her bed,” he said.
Darla Jean Checketts, 58, died on June 23, and her family held a graveside service on July 11. Thursday marked a somber milestone for the state, as Utah Department of Health officials announced that COVID-19 has killed 300 Utahns.
“It’s definitely sad to see the numbers,” Kirwan Checketts said. “It’s sad because she is now one of those numbers. But also, those people aren’t just numbers. They’re people who lived a life like my mother, and she did all of these wonderful things. The people in those numbers contributed to other people, they changed human lives.”
For Darla’s oldest child and only daughter, Aly Coleman, it is living without her mom’s daily love and guidance that is most difficult.
“I don’t know how to sum my mom up in just a few short sentences,” said the Checketts’ oldest child. “At her graveside service the recurring theme was how she modeled compassion so perfectly. She was the first to step up and serve. She was also a great example of selfless love. She always put her family first and made sure we as kids had all we needed. She made sure we had great family memories and went on great adventures.
“She showed this love to her grandchildren as well. My oldest son said he will always remember baking and playing games with Grandma. Whenever I had a problem or just wanted to complain, she would help me gain a new perspective and give me advice on how to handle the situation.”
It isn’t just Darla Checketts’ children who will miss her perspective-altering advice.
Makenzie Thompson started teaching the same subjects at Ben Lomond High about five months after Darla started teaching.
“I was just barely out of college, and that was my first job interview,” Thompson recalled. “I was super nervous. She helped put me at ease. ... She was the most warm of any of (the interviewers), just very welcoming, and had a very calming effect.”
Immediately Checketts became more than a co-worker.
“It was awesome to work with her,” Thompson said. “She is very organized, but she wasn’t one who got stuck in a rut.”
She said her experiences teaching in Idaho, working in the Peace Corps and teaching in Africa made her uniquely committed to seeing every lesson from the perspective of her students.
“She knew what she was doing,” Thompson said. “But she was always talking about trying to improve her lessons. She’d go home and ask her teenage sons, who had just graduated, ‘This is what I did in this lesson. How would you take that?’ She was constantly looking for improvement.”
Her desire to always evolve was something Ben Lomond Principal Steve Poll appreciated.
“She was committed to getting better and better,” Poll said, “to getting kids engaged and to become active in her class.”
Darla Checketts didn’t seek the spotlight, and a lot of the love she offered was given privately.
“She was very quiet, very reserved,” Poll said. “She found opportunities where she felt comfortable being a leader, and I didn’t know about a lot of those until after she died. I heard from other teachers who said, ‘She was the first teacher to come into my classroom, introduce herself, make me feel welcome. She’d open up her curriculum and assignments, and just help others.”
Thompson said she learned as much about finding balance in life as she did about teaching from Checketts, who happened to be around the age of her parents.
“I got foster sons last year, and it was really stressful,” Thompson said. “I was trying not to spend too much time at work, ignoring my husband and kids. ... She helped me with that. Really through her example. She was the best wife and a really good teacher. ... She taught me how to be organized, and how to balance my work and home life.”
Kirwan Checketts said the greatest lesson he takes from his mom’s life is “compassion, to not be judgmental. You never know what situation people are in. ... You never know what they’ve been through.”
One other gift Darla gave her children is faith.
“My mom had a strong testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ and has become a Christ-like example to her kids,” Coleman said, “who all have strong testimonies of Jesus Christ.”