When AFSCME official Randy Hellmann was hospitalized in February with COVID-19 — the diagnosis coming just two weeks before his scheduled vaccine appointment — he had a premonition it wasn’t going to end well.
Talking on the phone from his hospital bed, Hellmann told his longtime best friend and “union comrade” Pat Rensing this:
“I need a promise from you, Pat. I want to be used as the poster child for the vaccination. I don’t want anyone to go through what I’m going through.”
Rensing tried to be encouraging, as anyone might. She told Hellmann he could lead the campaign himself once he recovered.
But Hellmann was insistent.
“No,” he told her. “I need this promise.”
That would turn out to be a heavy responsibility for Rensing after Hellmann died from the virus on March 13. He was 58.
For 30 years, Hellmann and Rensing had advanced together through the union ranks in the Illinois Department of Corrections, first as activists and local union leaders at state prisons in Centralia and Pinckneyville, later as statewide union leaders and finally as employees of the union itself.
Hellmann was the charismatic one, a “natural born leader,” as Rensing put it.
“He knew how to talk to folks,” she said. “He knew how to message.”
Rensing was his trusted sidekick, the detail person in their partnership.
“He taught me so much. I was more in the grunt work,” said Rensing, who came through the clerical side of the Department of Corrections.
Hellmann was a large man who went to work as a prison guard after attending Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on a baseball scholarship.
An avid sportsman with a home on a quarry lake near far downstate Carlyle, Hellmann tried to fish every day, and he did his own taxidermy. The inside of his house looked like a Bass Pro Shop with all of his trophies on the walls, Rensing said. He took particular pride in an eight-pound bass that he’d caught and mounted.
“Randy, he was bigger than life,” said Lisa Hellmann, his widow.
Months later, she still finds his death difficult to talk about. Her husband had no prior health problems before contracting COVID, she said.
Of his union work, Lisa Hellmann said, “He tried to help people in any way, shape or form to get what they deserved.”
In short, Hellmann was a perfect candidate in many respects to be exactly what he proposed to be on his death bed: the focus of a campaign to vaccinate his fellow union members. He fit the profile of many of the people who have resisted the vaccine.
But when he died, Rensing didn’t know where to start.
So she asked Roberta Lynch for help. Lynch, AFSCME Council 31’s executive director, assigned Anders Lindall, the union’s public affairs director, to the task. With Rensing’s assistance, Lindall put together a short video that has been widely shared on social media. It uses Hellmann’s story to make the case for vaccination as strongly Hellmann could have hoped.
Not long afterward, Rensing was meeting with union members at Menard Correctional Center when she was approached by a young man who told her he didn’t know Hellmann but that, after watching the video, went to his local public health office and got vaccinated.
“It was touching,” Rensing said.
I’d like to tell you that was just the start of an outpouring of union members and state corrections employees getting the vaccine after hearing Hellmann’s story. But Rensing said she hasn’t heard from anyone else.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t others. But, as in so many aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are people who can be persuaded and those who can’t.
“I think [the Hellmann video] has played a part and made a positive difference,” Lindall said, noting that the union also has taken other steps to encourage its members to get the shots.
Lisa Hellmann is frustrated by those who won’t get vaccinated.
“I have no idea why people don’t. It truly befuddles me,” she said. “I try to tell people: Please get vaccinated. I try to tell them it’s not going to go away until everybody gets vaccinated.”
It’s a shame Randy Hellmann can’t tell them himself.