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Owner of beloved Dayton, Ohio, restaurant died of COVID-19

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Throughout the pandemic, we've been remembering the lives of some of the nearly 1 million people who've died in the U.S. from COVID-19. Today - Aaron Kim, a father, a husband and a restauranteur from Ohio.

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Kim's family emigrated from South Korea in the early '80s when he was a child. In his teens, he worked at a gas station his family ran in Dayton.

MARY KIM: I used to drive through all the time and have him pump my gas for me (laughter).

PFEIFFER: That's Aaron's wife, Mary. She met him when she was just 17. He was 18 and rode dirt bikes and motorcycles. And he always seemed happy.

MARY KIM: I think he developed a personality of laughter and fun to try to avoid the situation that he didn't speak really good English. And then he just developed into that man, you know, I am happy, and you're going to be happy, and we're going to be friends.

SHAPIRO: In 1988, Aaron's family opened a Korean and Chinese restaurant called the Xenia China Inn. They sold it in 2008. Walgreens wanted the property. But Aaron wasn't done. He found another spot right around the corner.

MARY KIM: He pretty much built it from scratch. I mean, it was a building. It was a shell. But he turned it into a restaurant. He laid the tiles. He'd built the booths. He put in the equipment. When we finally opened, for four or five months, there was a line down the street constantly.

He was in the kitchen mostly, but there wasn't a day that didn't go by that somebody would come to the drive-through window and want to talk to him. They'd say, hey, where's Aaron? Send Aaron up front.

MAURA KIM: He loved to cook - more like he loved to cook for other people.

PFEIFFER: That's Maura Kim, one of Aaron's two daughters. She's 18.

MAURA KIM: His love language is food.

MARY KIM: Yes.

MAURA KIM: He was always wanting to make me try new things. He'd be like, Maura...

MARY KIM: Try this.

MAURA KIM: ...Try this. This is a new creation I made. And, I mean, he was more of a best friend to me than a dad, honestly. I like to tell people, like, he was a teenager trapped in an adult's body.

MARY KIM: Yeah.

MAURA KIM: He liked to listen to the music I like to listen to. Like, his favorite was Khalid. And we went to a Khalid concert.

(SOUNDBITE OF KHALID CONCERT)

KHALID AND MAURA KIM: (Singing) So I'll be coasting, roller-coasting.

MAURA KIM: And, I mean, like, he would dance around. He knew all the songs. He wasn't just a dad, standing in the background because he was being forced to be there. No, he wanted to be there.

MARY KIM: Yeah.

MAURA KIM: And he showed it.

SHAPIRO: The restaurant had fared pretty well throughout the pandemic. But then in September of last year, COVID spread among the staff.

MARY KIM: Everybody got sick that was there that day. For some reason, he just got the sickest. We shut the restaurant down for two weeks because we figured, you know, that's everybody quarantining.

And then, he just wasn't improving. And they went into the hospital. And they had to put him on a ventilator, and he didn't recover. It was just a mess, total mess.

PFEIFFER: Aaron Kim died on October 26, 2021. He was 52. A few weeks later, his family held a vigil outside the restaurant, which is now closed indefinitely.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAURA KIM: I just want to say thank you to everyone.

SHAPIRO: There was a moment of silence. Then, they wheeled out Aaron's dirt bike to rev the engine one last time.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIRT BIKE ENGINE REVVING)

SHAPIRO: If you'd like us to memorialize a loved one you've lost to COVID-19, find us on Twitter @npratc. There's a pinned tweet at the top of the page.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANGELS")

KHALID: (Singing) I've been seeing angels in my living room that have walked the sun and have slept on the moon, covered in the fragrance... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.