Gary McConnell of Bloomfield offers this advice to all: “Treasure your family. Don’t hesitate to tell them you love them wherever… whenever…and no matter who’s around. You never know what’s going to happen.”
He issued those poignant words of advice after losing his daughter, Amy McConnell Rowell, to influenza March 30, 2019.
For Gary, Amy’s mother (Susan Utt-Smith), and other members of the Rowell, McConnell, and Utt families, Amy’s passing was a shock.
Two days after arriving home from vacation, Gary and his wife Linda learned that Amy was being life-flighted to Iowa City Hospitals for complications from influenza — double pneumonia and sepsis. The family quickly gathered at her side.
“University of Iowa Hospitals did everything they could to save her,” Gary said.
Amy’s loss was not only a blow to her immediate family, but to her extended family of thousands of immigrants in the Quad-Cities area as well.
Amy had been Director of World Relief in Moline, Ill., for 10 years, and on June 20, World Refugee Day, World Relief ran a full-page tribute to Amy and the Quad-Cities’ refugees in the Quad-City Times.
“World Relief is privileged to serve some of these amazing people here in the Quad Cities as we help refugees rebuild their lives,” the article said. “Our work was led for 10 years by Amy McConnell Rowell who died from a sudden illness in March. She was a champion for refugees, a community educator, and a woman driven by deep faith in God. So today, we also honor her memory and the life she dedicated to serving and loving others.
“Because of Amy’s leadership and the welcoming spirit of the Quad Cities, over 10,000 refugees have rebuilt their lives in our communities. On this World Refugee Day we follow Amy’s example and honor each and every refugee who calls the Quad Cities home, and we pray for the safety of those still awaiting an opportunity to rebuild their lives.”
Gary said Amy was drawn to helping others early in her life. Her family on both sides was very family-oriented and, as he said, were “people people.”
As he and Linda were greeted in the receiving line by hundreds and hundreds of immigrants at Amy’s visitation, he was struck by the number who were crying and didn’t know how they were going to make it without her.
“I could see the fear in women’s eyes as they were wondering who was going to take care of them,” he said.
“She (Amy) had a family of thousands,” he said. “She knew all their names — difficult names from many other cultures. They called her in the middle of the night if they needed something — to take a family member to the hospital if they were ill or having a baby. She probably went with a smile on her face.”
Nana Lee from Myanmar, submitted an article to the Quad-City Times saying, “when we first got here in America, Amy welcomed us and took care of us until now.
“I’m so heartbroken that she left us so soon. I can’t imagine how our lives will be like without her. She is like a mother to all of us, caring and raising us with her love. That’s why I will be forever grateful for her.
“Someday I want to change people’s world like she had changed our world.”
Gary spoke of Amy’s many mission trips to Asiatic countries and mentioned that she would pack her suitcase full of clothes, pencils, and paper for kids and use a minimum of space for her own belongings.
Another relative recalled a mission trip Amy took to the Himalayas in Nepal. She stayed in a little village with only a board to sleep on.
Amy’s husband, Eric Rowell, is an admissions counselor for diversity outreach at Augustana College, and also works with refugees.
“Amy and Eric went to India for two months 15 years ago,” Gary related. “Amy helped in the schools and Eric taught kids how to play basketball. He is tall and played on a Division II national runner-up basketball team in his earlier days. The kids thought he was Michael Jordan,” he laughed.
Amy frequently visited orphanages on her mission trips and worked with pastors to give them strength and helpful information for their parishioners.
Amy and Eric served as elders in their church, The House – A Local Church, in Rock Island. The church and their pastor were supportive of their mission efforts.
In his tribute to Amy at her funeral, Eric said, “Her travels would take her to Burma and Nepal and India. She welcomed refugees from these places but also from Iraq, Iran, and numerous African nations like the Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Burundi. We met so many people, many of whom eventually would be sitting in our home and eating the food we would prepare for them. Just because we wanted them to know there were people, Americans, who cared deeply for their well-being.”
Eric also spoke of twin boys from India who came into their lives three years ago as a result of the Rowells’ acquaintance with a basketball coach in India. The coach mentioned that Sonu and Golu were having difficulties at a poorly run basketball camp in Arizona.
“I specifically told Amy that under no circumstances were they coming to live with us (on a long-term basis). Well, on July 3, having never met them other than through a couple of conversations on the phone, Sonu and Golu stepped off a plane and walked into our arms permanently,” he said.
“You can’t help but agree with her when it comes to caring for others. It was much easier to do exactly what she asked because you believed it was right and that things would just work out,” he said.
Gary said the boys were in India to play ball for the summer but would be back in the fall to stay with Eric and the couple’s children, Anna and Jude.
“He has his hands full,” Gary said, “but he’ll manage it; I have no doubt.”
Gary said granddaughter Anna will be a senior at Moline High School and grandson Jude will be a freshman. “She is active in the arts — band and drama. He is in track and band,” he said proudly.
Eric plans to carry on with World Relief efforts, and Amy’s family looks to him as a source of strength. One relative said after Eric’s tribute to Amy at the funeral, “It felt like Eric wrapped his arms around you and gave you comfort.”
On the day of Amy’s death, Eric posted on Facebook, “At approximately 2 p.m. today, my wife, Amy Renee (McConnell) Rowell, mother of Anna, Jude, Sonu, and Golu took her last breath. As she travels to heaven please never forget how loving and caring she was. Please remember that it doesn’t matter how much money you make or the things you have. The only thing that matters is the beautiful mark you leave on this world. And her mark is absolutely gorgeous.”
Amy’s sibling, Libby Wood, misses her sister, but finds inspiration in Amy’s life.
“The thing that continues to come to my mind is that Amy never did her work for human glorification, she often reminded me to…Love Your Neighbor (and not just the one living next door),” Libby said. “She never saw color, money, social status…none of that was important.
“She truly just loved ALL people. I have clung to this since the day Amy met Jesus. That HE loves his children and his promise to believers is that one day he will say, ‘Well done, well done, good and faithful one.’
“I can’t imagine what it was like the day my sister heard those words as she entered the gates to Heaven.
“Be kind to others and love your neighbor. That is what she taught me!
“And although it is wonderful to honor her, I know she would say, ‘No need for all of this. Go on about your day and be kind to someone.’”