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'They never felt judged': R.J. Vidimos II found 'his calling' being a correctional officer


Lois Vidimos misses the touch of her husband's hand most. 

Whenever they took a drive, Robert Vidimos II — better known as R.J. — would throw the car in park, walk around the back and take her hand as he held her door open. Always a gentleman, R.J.’s small gesture made her feel like Cinderella getting out of her carriage — even if they were just running an errand to Wal-Mart.

"It's the oddest thing, but it's one of the hardest things” I've had to face since he’s been gone, Lois said.

After fighting COVID-19 on his Ames couch for two weeks, R.J. died from complications of the disease on Nov. 16. He was 58.

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The loss hits particularly hard, Lois said, because R.J. had recently found “his calling.” Following years of volunteering with a ministry group at the Story County jail in Nevada, R.J. was just a year into a full-time job as an officer at the Iowa Correctional Institute for Women in Mitchellville.

He enjoyed connecting with the inmates, Lois said. With their punishment determined by the state, R.J. felt his job was to model good behavior, help them start the transition back to life outside even as they were behind bars.  

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Shortly before his death, R.J. took up the mantle of connecting inmates with family members through virtual visits, his wife said. 

Once his death was announced to the prison population, inmates made cards for Lois and her family. In all the handwritten notes, one truth became clear: "They never felt judged” around him, Lois said.

Born in Hammond, a northwest Indiana city about an hour southeast of Chicago, R.J. had five siblings, three brothers and two sisters. In high school, R.J. attended a wrestling camp at Iowa State University and fell so in love with the campus, he decided to go to college there.

Once he moved to Ames, he never left, making the central Iowa town his home for more than three decades.

R.J.’s naturally bubbly personality meant he could make friends easily, whether at a party or just waiting in line at a gas station.

While in college, R.J. worked at a bar named That Place, where Lois and her softball team would unwind after games.

"If you came to that bar in your uniforms, you got a free pitcher of beer and popcorn," Lois said with a laugh.

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On the night they met, R.J. wasn’t on the clock yet, but he knew some of her friends and helped them anyway.

"He just had these lame jokes and I thought they were funny," Lois said. 

In 1986, after a two-year courtship, R.J. married Lois at St. Cecilia Church, where she still works at the attached elementary school. They had two children, Rob and Lauren, whose son, Atlas, was the apple of R.J.’s eye.

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Before finding his purpose at the women’s prison, R.J. spent many years working in horticulture — first at Earl May Garden Centers and then at Lowe's. 

The family’s Catholic faith has always played an important role in their lives, Lois said. Both active members of St. Cecilia, R.J. volunteered for the Men’s CEW, a series of faith-based weekend retreats, and for the Stephen Ministry, which provides encouragement to those experiencing difficult times.

At home, he loved slapstick movies and playing board games — very competitively — with his kids.

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“R.J.'s family, faith and compassion guided his life,” his family wrote in his obituary. “His was the glue that held his family and his community together.”

“Boisterous and joyful, it was easy to see the kid in the body of the man,” his family wrote. “He loved to laugh; he told good stories and bad jokes.”

Lois was diagnosed with COVID-19 first, a few days before R.J. and Lauren, who lives with her parents, caught the disease.

Fighting COVID-19 for two weeks at home, R.J. woke up struggling to breathe on Nov. 16. He passed out as Lois helped him downstairs and was rushed to a local hospital, where he died later that night.

As Lois has navigated the past few months without her soulmate, she’s been thinking about the big moments in their life as much as R.J.'s small gestures. The births of their son, daughter and grandson. Their wedding. And a special trip the family took to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, when their children were in high school — just at the tipping point between childhood and their adult lives.

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On the last night of the vacation, the family took a catamaran from the Sea of Cortez into the Pacific Ocean for the sunset. The sea in front of them seemed to stretch on forever, Lois said, and the setting rays painted the sky in vibrant oranges as the sun dipped below the watery horizon.

Now that their foursome is a threesome, Lois holds this memory close. Every member of their small family felt something special, something magical in that moment.

"It was just the most perfect day," Lois said.

This story is part of the Iowa Mourns series, a collection of remembrances about Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. If you've lost a loved one to COVID-19 in Iowa, let us know by filling out this form or emailing Iowa Columnist Courtney Crowder at ccrowder@dmreg.com.

Iowans lost to COVID-19

The following deaths from COVID-19 were added in the past week to our list of more than 600 Iowans who have died from the disease, found at DesMoinesRegister.com/IowaMourns.

Louis Cauterucci, 70, Des Moines. Started his decades-long music career at the tender age of 14.

Nicole Keller, 76, Waukee. Instrumental in taking Principal Financial Group public on the New York Stock Exchange.

Larry Sellers, 85, Pleasant Hill. A volunteer coach, officer and mentor for Grandview Little League who served four generations of players for more than 60 years. 

John Skaggs, 76, Quad Cities. Attended the Secret Service training center in Maryland.

John Van Weelden, 78, Albia. A master woodworker who crafted everything from cabinetry to custom birdhouses.