LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) — Unfinished work keeps Donna Avolt in the Tippecanoe County coroner's office.
"It would have been easy to hole up at home after Aug. 16, but David would have haunted me there," Avolt said with a smile this past week. "I want to complete the picture. I want his life, a life well lived, to be celebrated."
Avolt is running for the coroner's job left vacant when her husband, Martin David Avolt — some called him "Doc" — died in an auto accident. It happened during the couple's annual visit with their son, Jeffrey, and his family in Florida.
"David wanted to make the office the best in the state," Avolt told the Journal & Courier for a story Sunday (http://on.jconline.com/QSQQ5E ). "He was able to network with other counties, so if there was any question or concern, the coroners knew they had someone they could call."
Continuing professional development and public outreach are areas Avolt wants to work on now. She wants people to know the coroner staff can help when a loved one dies at home. Also, she wants to make the coroner's office more proactive.
"We are a reactive office," she said. "But we've had more drug-related deaths, and it's important for the community to know what's happening, how those overdoses of alcohol, methamphetamine and methadone can be prevented."
A Republican, David Avolt served nearly 20 years as coroner — consecutive four-year terms from 1984 to 1992, consecutive four-year terms from 1997 to 2004 and from 2009 to now. Donna Avolt served in the post between her husband's terms, and he was deputy coroner for eight years before his first election.
"This office was built with a lot of help from a lot of people," Avolt said. "This office is not one person. This is a team that works together well. We do it right. We like each other. I can't say enough about the cooperation and support we have from local law enforcement.
"Dave never said, 'You have to do this.' He would say, 'How do you feel about taking a blood spatter course?' There was something in his demeanor that said, 'I think you can do that.'"
Deputy Coroner Carrie Costello agreed.
"He helped me become a fellow with the American Academy of Forensic Science," she said. "Doc saw something good in people, and he made it stronger, better."
Costello is a detective sergeant at the Purdue Police Department. With Dave Avolt's urging, Costello said she researched and presented two scientific studies, one focused on the causes of student deaths at Purdue University, the other comparing student deaths with those of non-college students.
"I would not have been able to do it without him," Costello said. "He just truly was a giving human being. He had the vision to involve people from every local police agency in the coroner's office. He designed that system."
"David steered the ship," Avolt said, "but a lot of wonderful people committed to forensic science have come through the office. Staff members have willingly worked yeoman hours. You don't do public service for the money. Everyone is extended family."
The words 'extended family' pop up frequently in Avolt's conversations. It seems many people are 'like a second daughter or second son.' The reward, she said, is watching people grow.
"Dave and I've been fortunate. A long time ago we decided this is our way of saying thank you to the community that has supported us."
Technology, DNA evidence, and professional certification are the significant changes Avolt has seen in the coroner's office. Avolt obtained her certification after the Indiana legislature established standards in 1993.
"David asked me, 'Are you going to do it?' I realized he needed to know if I was serious before he invested in my training."
Until then, Avolt had volunteered in the office.
"We deal with families at the very worst possible times in their lives," she said. "Suicide is the worst, the guilt for the family members left behind. I hope and think we do have an impact on those families, if an autopsy is done. We sit down and explain what happened. We answer all of their questions so they understand."
Donna and David Avolt met while at Illinois College in Jacksonville, a small, liberal arts college 40 miles west of Springfield.
She speaks candidly and with shades of humor when describing their 47-year marriage and three years of dating.
"He was pinned to my pledge mom at college," Avolt said matter-of-factly. "She was a fiery redhead, but they were like oil and water. We all were friends. Her name is Kathleen. You know what my first-born child's name is? Kathy."
The Avolts married after Donna graduated with an English degree and David earned a bachelor's degree in biology and chemistry. They moved to Champaign, Ill., where David earned doctorate of veterinary medicine degree and Donna worked for a physicist.
In 1969, the couple moved to Lafayette so Dave could intern at Purdue University and, eventually, open a private veterinary practice. They planned for Donna to be a stay-at-home mom after their first child was born.
"Although our daughter Kathy is a delightful person, I finally told David I was bored and needed to find something to do," joked Avolt.
"I did some bookkeeping for the veterinary practice. I volunteered at Columbian Park Zoo. That was when Sabrina the lion started having cubs and was not winning any mother-of the-year awards. I took the cubs and raised them for six weeks. Kathy was 2 years old and Jeffrey was 6 months. They assumed everyone grew up with lion cubs."
How do a veterinarian and a community volunteer become veterans of the county coroner office?
"It all happened when we moved next door to former coroner Dr. Bill Sholty," Avolt said. "One night Bill came over and said, 'I've got a double homicide. Would you like to go with me?' David became a deputy coroner then and there. It was easy for them to talk because they had similar backgrounds in medicine."
Avolt said when her husband filed to run for coroner in February, he planned to make it his last four years in the office.
"We enjoy the work, the puzzle of determining what caused what. We thoroughly enjoy the people we work with. Just being there for the families and hearing them say, 'Thank you. Now we know why our mom, dad, aunt or cousin died.'"
Fortified by decades of explaining cause and manner of death to other families, Avolt was composed when she described what happened on Aug. 16.
"Our grandson Spencer is my little hero," she said. "David was returning from a pediatrician appointment with Spencer.
"In Florida they have little posts marking the right-turn lanes into subdivisions. Dave started turning, and Spencer said they wanted the next subdivision. Dave overcorrected to get out of the lane, hit some of the posts, went all the way across the road and went down into a ditch on the other side.
"David made sure Spencer was all right. Then David told Spencer, 'I can't move. Go get help.' Spencer climbed out the vehicle window, ran up the ditch, climbed a 12-foot cyclone fence and flagged down a police officer. I'm so proud of Spencer. He did a logical, adult thing. He's always been Grandpa's pal.
"If I'm grateful for anything, it's that we did not have a long period of suffering. He would not have been a good patient."
"I want people to talk about the fun stuff," she said. "I remember the good things. I also remember the man never picked up after himself. I will never eat a 'sloppy Joe' again. Whenever we talked about what to eat for dinner, he always wanted 'sloppy Joes'."
The memories turn somber for a moment as Avolt contemplates annual events that will never be the same. "The trick-or-treaters at Halloween will not get blown-up surgery gloves with faces painted on them," she said.
The outpouring of support has helped Avolt cope.
"I haven't cooked in three weeks. Friends, and people we haven't seen or talked to in years have sent cards, notes, flowers or dropped by with food. Even Jeffrey's neighbors and the grandchildren's teachers in Florida helped."
The demands of the present interrupt thoughts of the past. Avolt will staff the children's trading blanket at the Feast of the Hunters' Moon. She's going through paperwork, personal and professional. The coroner autopsy budget is $7,000 in the red, and Avolt is preparing to ask the county council for more money.
"Our population is growing. We do have more deaths. Already this year we've had 124 autopsies. We had 126 at the end of August last year. We don't have unique years anymore. This is the trend."
And now, Avolt has something in common with family members left behind.
"I didn't expect this," she said, even after her husband underwent heart surgery to implant a defibrillator in April. "This situation has given me a deeper understanding and compassion. If we ever get in a routine, we will always remember this is a person, this is a member of a family."
Information from: Journal and Courier, http://www.jconline.com