Editor’s note: The human toll of the coronavirus pandemic is generally expressed in terms of people who’ve gotten sick or died from COVID-19. We have been chronicling their stories in an obituary series called Lives Remembered. But beyond those infected with the virus are countless others whose experiences and deaths during the pandemic aren’t reflected in the data. This is one such story.
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People were always struck by how smart she was.
That’s one of the main things Laneyse Hooks remembers about her mother, Lilliantyne Fields, a biology researcher who was instrumental in working on early sickle-cell research in the Pacific Northwest.
“It’s hard to put into words how graceful she was with (her accomplishments),” Hooks said. “She never flaunted the fact. You’d never know she had overcome anything.”
Fields, nicknamed Tyna, died April 8 of cardiac arrest at age 89. She had been diagnosed with atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat that can lead to inadequate blood flow — and was supposed to have surgery in the spring, but it was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, her family says.
Fields devoted much of her life to studying and teaching biology, but she stayed busy in other ways, too. She was active with First African Methodist Episcopal Church in Seattle, teaching Sunday school and helping lead an emergency feeding program through the Church Council of Greater Seattle. She supported the anti-apartheid movement by working to persuade local banks to disinvest from South Africa. She sang in various church choirs, lighting up the room with a beautiful soprano voice. And she filled journals with daily entries, often about specific scriptures and her faith.
Fields was born Oct. 26, 1930, in segregated El Reno, Oklahoma, to two sharecroppers, Blanche Utterback and Fred Williams. Though she had a “horribly rough” childhood, one her father wasn’t a part of, she never let on about those struggles, Hooks said.
Fields became the first in her family to graduate from high school when she received her diploma from Booker T. Washington High School, El Reno’s only K-12 school for Black students at the time. It was closed in 1968 after desegregation shuttered the district’s segregated Black schools, said Hooks, 62.
She went on to study biology at Langston University, now the only remaining historically Black college in Oklahoma, where she joined the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, her daughter said.
After graduating magna cum laude in 1955, Fields moved to Wichita, Kansas, to enroll in a medical technology program. While there, she reconnected with Theron Hooks, a man she’d met at Langston University who was working for Boeing’s Kansas plant at the time. The two married in 1957 and had two children: Laneyse and Quinton.
“She was a very hands-on mother,” Laneyse Hooks said. “We could read before we got to school.”
In 1965, after the kids were born, Fields earned a master’s degree from Wichita State University. She started teaching junior high school, becoming one of four Black teachers in Wichita Public Schools who were allowed to teach above the elementary age, her daughter said.
Hooks laughed as she remembered playing with classroom items her mother brought home, including several sheep eyes her students had dissected.
The family moved to Washington state a few years later, when Theron Hooks was among a group of Boeing engineers relocated from Kansas to Everett. That’s when Fields joined First AME Church and began teaching microbiology at Shoreline Community College.
Around the same time, she started exploring sickle-cell research, a passion that led her to help found the Metropolitan Seattle Sickle Cell Task Force. The organization, which is active today and has grown into a statewide program, partners with schools, nonprofit organizations and health-care providers to offer sickle-cell testing and education to the community, according to its website.
LueRachelle Brim-Atkins, who spent a year working for the task force as a genetic counselor, educator and consultant, said Fields was active as a board member, adviser and community organizer for the program.
Brim-Atkins, who also attended First AME Church with Fields, said she remembers her friend as a bright, focused person who was “perfectly willing to share her opinions.”
In 1971, Fields and her husband divorced. Two years later, she remarried, and spent the next 46 years with Frank Fields Jr., who worked for the city of Seattle’s water department.
She continued teaching and returned to school to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Washington.
“Her research explored finding ways to help ‘nontraditional students’ succeed when they are accepted into college — students whose schools and backgrounds did not provide a strong science foundation,” Hooks wrote in her mother’s obituary, adding that she focused on supporting economically disadvantaged and minority students. “All her life, she embodied her belief that, ‘Public education has to work for all students.’ “
When Fields retired from teaching, she moved to Oklahoma City with her husband, became active with Avery AME Church and started working with a campaign for tobacco-free kids in Oklahoma.
“She just wasn’t a sit-around person,” her daughter said.
As the couple’s health began to decline, however, they decided to move into independent-living facilities in Seattle — first The Lakeshore in Bryn Mawr-Skyway, then Solstice Senior Living in Renton.
“They just loved it,” Hooks said. “Their friends moved there, and they did water aerobics and bridge and went on walks. They were these little ladies, and just as active as can be. … Which is why my mom’s death is still very difficult for me.”
When Fields’ husband, Frank, died in his sleep in January 2019, Fields was in relatively good health, her daughter said.
Around the end of March or beginning of April, Fields was supposed to have a pacemaker put in at Valley Medical Center in Renton to address her atrial fibrillation. But on the day of her surgery, the hospital — in an effort to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus — halted all elective surgeries and canceled her operation without rescheduling it, her daughter said.
About two weeks later, she came down with an infection and became unable to speak clearly. Her son took her to the hospital, where she suffered a cardiac arrest and died, her daughter said.
One of the hardest parts, Hooks said, was that the hospital wasn’t permitting visitors at the time, so neither she nor her brother could be with their mom while she was being treated.
“I get it. They were going crazy. … There were so many unknowns with the virus,” her daughter said. “But I’m not happy with how things worked out.”
Both Fields’ children remember their mother as a patient person and good listener who excelled in her studies, dressed up for church and filled her home with loved ones.
“People would meet her and they were instantly attracted to her,” her son, Quinton Hooks, said. “She had this light about her.”
In addition to two children, Laneyse and Quinton, Fields is survived by her son-in-law, Richard Marchi; her husband’s children, Frank Michael Fields and Michelle Fields; and many half-siblings, nieces, nephew, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.