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Winter of Death: New book recalls 28 deaths in 1918-1919 Ravenna flu epidemic
Debbie Epping
Antelope Staff
Photo courtesy of Valerie Vierk
Valerie Vierk stands in the Highland Cemetary in her hometown of Ravenna, Neb. Many of the victims of the 1918-1919 flu epidemic lie in unmarked graves. Vierk is the Office Assistant in Copeland Hall and author of the recently published book, “Winter of Death.”

What goes around, comes around—at least in the case of the flu.

“It’s an old scourge that’s been around for a long time and it can mutate,” said Valerie Vierk, the office assistant in Copeland Hall and author of the recently published book, “Winter of Death.”

Vierk was inspired to write a book on the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic victims in her hometown of Ravenna, Neb., after hearing a story about her grandmother’s classmate named Phrania McDonald. Eighteen-year-old McDonald had a beautiful voice and, before her death, reportedly sat up in bed, sang a verse of a popular war hymm and fell back on her pillow and died.

“It truly was a swan’s song,” Vierk said.

Vierk, a UNK alum with a BA in English and a minor in history, was concerned that the Ravenna flu victims would soon be forgotten.

There was little record of the epidemic in history books and “people were focused on the end of the war…it was just kind of forgotten,” Vierk said.

Vierk was also interested in the eerie fact that Ravenna, just about 20 miles north of Kearney, had such an alarmingly high rate of casualties. Ravenna, with a population of 1,700, had 28 casualties in a six and one-half month period.

“Why was Ravenna hit so hard? I don’t know,” Vierk said.

The flu epidemic that devastated Ravenna was strange in nature because it affected everyone from babies on up to otherwise healthy, young men in the war.

“It took the young people,” Vierk said.

Along with remembering the victims, Vierk wrote the book in light of the new flu scare coming on. People shouldn’t be lulled into thinking modern medicine can eradicate the flu..

“I’d like people to get their flu shot. Still 36,000 people die each year in the U.S. according to the Center for Disease Control. I don’t think people should take it lightly,” Vierk said.

With flu season right around the corner, and the recent scare with the swine flu, it’s important to stay informed. The lesson from “Winter of Death” is that an epidemic can cause casualties that affect a whole community.

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