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'I can't believe he's gone' | Vaccinated Tennessee craftsman dies from COVID-19

Newman and Peggy Smith did everything they could to avoid COVID-19, including getting vaccinated. He died from the virus at LeConte Medical Center on September 1.

GATLINBURG, Tenn — It was the sound of the mountains that first brought Peggy and Newman Smith together.

She sang and played the dulcimer — an instrument he had always loved. He got her number from a friend and they immediately hit it off.

"There was a dulcimer festival... he had called and we talked for an hour and a half," she said, adding that she normally didn't do that. "He was the most fascinating man I have ever talked with."

Newman, a craftsman with "eyes the color of autumn leaves and a nice beard,"  lovingly made her a dulcimer right before they got married. 

She still plays that same instrument today — even after he's gone.

Credit: Submitted
A picture of Peggy Donaldson Smith and Newman Smith when they first started dating.

The Smiths knew COVID-19 was a real threat. They got vaccinated, wore their masks, social distanced and stayed home as much as possible.

Once, Newman forgot his mask on his way into the grocery store. It was raining and he was fully vaccinated, so he went in anyway. 

A few days later, he began feeling sick. 

"We thought it was allergies ad even after we got hit really hard, we thought it must be flu," Peggy recalled. "It couldn't be COVID, but that's what it was."

Newman went to LeConte Medical Center and received the Regeneron and Remdesivir treatments to help him recover.

"He had everything the LeConte hospital could do," Peggy said. "They were wonderful."

Credit: Submitted

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Peggy arrived at the hospital to take him home. Unfortunately, Newman began throwing clots and died a few hours later.

"I was with him at the end... it's just very hard," she said. "I lived and he didn't. I still can't believe it."

She remembers seeing two patients in each intensive care room and people being treated in beds in the emergency room hallways.

"I told the doctor, one of them who worked so hard to save him, 'This is a war zone,'" Peggy said. "And he said, 'Oh yes, it is a war zone.' And he said, 'When you leave this place, would you please be a witness to what you have seen?'"

She told the doctor that she would.

Credit: Submitted
This is the last picture Peggy and Newman Smith took together.

At the First United Methodist Church in Gatlinburg, Peggy and Newman Smith are staples. She directs the choir and plays a number of instruments like piano, organ and dulcimer.

He did everything from taking care of the building to running the sound board to supporting his wife and congregation.

The church already feels emptier without him.

"That's the highlight of our life to be able to give something to God through this way," Peggy said. "It's going to be kind of hard to look back [at the sound board] with him not being here."

She said there are some days where all she can do is cry. Then, she hears his voice telling her to carry on.

"I can hear him saying 'Okay, okay. That's enough. Get on with it. You're still here. I'm up here having a grand time, but you go on with it," Peggy said. "I keep thinking I'll wake up and it'll all be a nightmare. But it's not, so there are things that have to get done."

Credit: Submitted
On Sundays, Newman Smith would watch his wife from the sound box.

Peggy and Newman are proud members of the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts community. She plans to continue running their shop -- The Smiths: Scrimshaw, Knives, and Silversmithing in Glades Village -- and playing the dulcimer he crafted her.

"I'll do the best I can with what time's left for me. I miss him every minute," she said. "I'll see him again someday and that means everything."