In 1990 Matt Bates, who played football for Herculaneum High School, watched as rival Festus High’s tiger mascot went through its paces.
“I HATED that mascot,” he said. “I just wanted to go over there and tackle that annoying thing.”
Bates laughs now at the fact it was his future wife, Renee Roehrs, inside.
“She really was good at it,” he said. “Her personality was the same inside the costume as it was out. Her smile was infectious and contagious, and that was what I fell in love with.”
Mrs. Bates died Jan. 25 at age 47 of complications from a congenital blood disorder.
“Her father was Fred Roehrs – nicknamed Fritz,” Matt said. “He was a Festus traffic cop who died when Renee was just 2. Her mom remarried Clarence Dittmer, and he was the dad she knew and loved.”
She met Matt when both were at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau.
“She was fun-loving, a bit of a troublemaker – nothing outside the ordinary, just rambunctious,” he said.
The two were married in 1995 and Mrs. Bates taught at Pevely Elementary School.
The couple’s early attempts to have children met with failure.
“The first indication that anything was wrong was the number of miscarriages we had in the early 2000s,” Matt said. “She got pregnant easily, but could never get past the eight-week mark.”
After a few years, doctors advised the couple to abandon their attempts, and they adopted daughter Amanda shortly after her birth in 2004. They were weeks away from finalizing the adoption when Mrs. Bates suffered a severe stroke.
Testing revealed she had a genetic disorder called essential thrombocythemia, in which the body produces too many platelets.
Mrs. Bates had been taking daily baby aspirin as part of her fertility-boosting regimen.
“Her body basically produced double the platelets you and I do,” Matt said. “Her blood was like motor oil. She didn’t know that all that blood was being thinned by the aspirin, and when she quit taking it, the stroke happened.”
Around 2005, Mrs. Bates started on oral chemotherapy drugs to keep her platelet count lowered.
She left teaching to take a position as a regional field representative for the Missouri State Teachers Association.
“They basically recruited her,” Matt said. “Her personality fit with what they were looking for. She covered from Jefferson County all the way down to the Bootheel.
“She was like a liaison between school districts and the legal system. She loved it; she said it was the best decision she ever made.”
Although Mrs. Bates was known for her sense of humor and her compassionate, generous nature, she was no-nonsense when it came to her job, her husband said.
“She never had a problem saying no to someone, but she wanted to be sure she didn’t make that person look bad,” he said. “Whether it was a district with 50 students or one with 5,000, everyone was given the same courtesy and respect.”
In January 2018, Mrs. Bates was instrumental in bringing a “Be the Match” event to her home school district, Jefferson R-7.
“That resulted in more than 100 people signing up for organ donation,” superintendent Clint Johnston said. “That’s how she was – a servant leader, a dedicated volunteer, a concerned parent, a remarkable lady.”
As time went on, Mrs. Bates’ disorder progressed toward a leukemia-like state.
“When you’re focusing on depleting red cells, you’re paying no attention to white cells,” Matt said. “Addressing one thing forces you to neglect the other. You can’t do both at once. She had a port in her chest, and we were going to Siteman (Cancer Center) almost every day.”
Doctors suggested an experimental treatment involving a DNA transplant.
She underwent the procedure in April 2019 – “a big needle full of what looks like pink-colored sand,” Matt said.
But, its failure was immediately obvious.
“She had this rash from graph-versus-host disease,” he said. “It looked like sunburn covered in poison ivy all over her body.”
Since her body was not responding to the treatments, Mrs. Bates was offered a second chance at the transplant.
“They were talking scheduling it after Christmas,” Matt said. “We were excited about her being home for the holidays.”
But doctors moved the date forward, and Mrs. Bates went into the hospital before Thanksgiving to start on a heavy dose of preparatory chemo.
“They did the transplant on Dec 4, and things went south from the get-go,” Matt said. “She had nausea, vomiting. She had pneumonia, developed fungus in her lungs. She was put into the ICU and was intubated on Jan 10. When she was sedated for that, she never came out again.”
The couple’s daughter, now 15, was able to visit her mother one last time to say goodbye.
“Around Christmas, she said, ‘Mom’s not coming home, is she?’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so, kiddo,” Matt said. “And that was just really that.
“I told her it was her choice (whether to visit), but I didn’t want her to be mad at me or at herself five years down the road because she didn’t go.”
The Bateses were one of two families honored during a Hoops for Hope event at Jefferson High School on Feb. 3.
“She was humbled to be chosen,” Matt said. “More than anything, she wanted there to be some benefit, some progress with this wretched disease to come out of her life, something to make this whole process worthwhile, that it wasn’t all for naught.”
“Life Story,” posted Saturdays on Leader Publications’ website, focuses on one individual’s impact on his or her community.