Despite restrictions, community honors late firefighter

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
The funeral procession for Keith Thewes of Celestine passes beneath the flag at St. Celestine Catholic Church on Friday.


CELESTINE — Friday afternoon, the people of Celestine showed their love and support for the late Keith Thewes and his family.

They stood along the sides of State Road 164 as a procession of fire trucks and cars entered the community, headed to St. Celestine Catholic Church.

People stood in small groups with their children, holding flags or displaying handmade signs that read “Rest in Peace, Keith.” There were even some balloons.

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But while they gathered on the road side, they were careful to ensure space between their family and the people next to them. They practiced social distancing, a common buzzword nowadays in our COVID-19 world.

“The community of Celestine is an outstanding community. We knew everyone would show their respect,” said Ryan Wineinger, chief of the Celestine Volunteer Fire Department. “But it was very comforting, in a difficult time, to see everyone do that.”

Thewes, 55, died in an off-road vehicle accident March 30. He’d been a member of the Celestine Volunteer Fire Department since 1989.

“He was actually one of the longest serving members of our active roster,” Wineinger said.

Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
The funeral procession for Keith Thewes of Celestine passes through the town on Friday.

Thewes served on the fire department with his brother, Duane, for several years. His son, Lance, joined in 2016, so they got to serve together as well.

“It’s pretty cool to have Keith and Duane on for several years, and then to see that carry on to Keith’s son,” Wineinger said, “having that family tradition in fire service.”

Thewes was also a member of St. Celestine Catholic Church, the Celestine Community Club and Celestine Park.

“Keith was a very honest person, very caring,” Wineinger said. “Whenever it came time to help people out, he was there. If you ever needed something, he was gonna be there to help you out.”

Thewes worked for Simple Transport, and was a partner in Thewes Brothers Farms. He liked hunting, fishing, camping, jeeping, and spending time with family and friends.

For a person who has served the community in these different capacities, especially his role as a firefighter, people would normally go to his visitation and funeral to pay their respects and show their thanks for his service.

But with the COVID-19 virus that continues to spread across the globe, careful arrangements had to be made.

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
People watch as the funeral procession for Keith Thewes of Celestine passes beneath the flag at St. Celestine Catholic Church on Friday.

“Given the current health situation, there were some restrictions we had to work through while maintaining things like social distancing,” Wineinger said. “Trying to maintain that was difficult. We had a lot of people contact us, wanting to help. We couldn’t let anyone and everyone in the general public come to the visitation services.”

The community adapted to the changed environment.

“Some members of the community had suggested that people line the street. That was one of the ways we were able to let people pay their final respects, in the final procession,” Wineinger said.

So the clusters of people lined along State Road 164 were able to participate in the solemn moments as Thewes’ family laid him to rest.

A private ceremony was held at Becher-Kluesner North Chapel. And then a processional of 24 vehicles, flanked by two fire trucks in the front and two in the back, left Jasper and headed to Celestine via the state road.

As the processional came into Celestine, led by a county sheriff’s vehicle and the hearse, people remained stoically quiet. The men took their hats off their heads. Even the children were quiet, many holding their parents’ hands. They all watched the vehicles pass and head to St. Celestine. Firefighters from other departments had their trucks on the church grounds; two aerial trucks’ arms stretched to the sky, displaying a huge American flag.

Firefighters stood at attention at the graveside service, socially distanced, as Thewes was laid to rest. The number of family members down the hill at the gravesite was small. But several others were in the parking lot watching.

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Huntingburg Volunteer Fire Department Firefighter Brad Buechler looks up while helping put the flag away after the funeral procession for Keith Thewes of Celestine at St. Celestine Catholic Church on Friday.

“We were very fortunate that some individuals came in and helped set up some sound system speakers in the parking lot, so that the extended family and friends were still able to hear everything up in the parking lot,” Wineinger said. “So, that was very nice.”

Still other members of the community watched from the top of the cemetery. They also kept distance between each other, and stayed quiet as they watched.

Wineinger was glad the community worked around the current health restrictions to pay their respects.

“When they came out and honored him, that was very comforting,” Wineinger said. “Just to see how the community came together and showed their support that way, while trying to do our due diligence, maintaining social distancing and such.”

“There’s no way we could have done what we did for the family, Keith and everyone without the support of community, neighboring departments and everyone.”

Along with Lance and Duane, Thewes is survived by his wife, Gail; his daughter, April Mullis; his parents, Lawrence and Marilyn Thewes; his in-laws, Jim and Janet Buechler; sisters, Michelle Keller and Beverly Harris; brother, Paul; and several nieces and nephews.

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