Omaha real estate agent Ralph Marasco grabbed people’s attention with his heart and his humor. By the time he let go, he had usually won them over.

On Tuesday, Marasco, 59, who suffered from a long-term heart condition, became the first person to die in Nebraska from the novel coronavirus. On Thursday, the disease claimed a second Nebraskan, a Hall County woman in her 60s.

Marasco, known for making people smile, did so even after his death as people recalled his mannerisms and sense of humor.

Those who knew him say he would’ve hated this paragraph. He hated it when people used pronouns, especially to start a sentence.

Ralph Marasco

Ralph Marasco 

“Who is he?” he would ask, one of many “Ralph-isms” shared by friends and family.

Marasco often played jokes on guests whom he took to lunch. He would ask to be seated “in the corner.”

“I’m breaking up with her,” he would say, waiting to crack a smile. Or “I’m firing her.”

Marasco exhibited two typical symptoms of COVID-19 — he was short of breath and had a cough — but his heart condition often left him short of breath, and he coughed because of his blood pressure medication, his family said.

“It’s not like he had the symptoms and ignored them,” Marasco’s son, Nico, told The World-Herald. “When he wasn’t feeling well, we thought it was his heart.”

Research shows that the coronavirus hits people with cardiovascular disease hard, causing death in almost 11% of cases studied by the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston.

Marasco’s heart condition had worsened over the past year, family said. He was scheduled to see a doctor on the day loved ones found that he had died in his sleep.

Nico announced the cause of his father’s death Friday on his father’s Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador Real Estate Facebook page. Initially, the family believed he had died as a result of his heart condition. It was a contributor but not the primary cause.

“I can find comfort in the countless stories of how Dad’s life and work decisions were made from his heart first,” Nico wrote. “It’s that heart that brought him closer to God.”

Nico said Saturday that he had lost his best friend and co-worker, a man whose moral compass pointed in the right direction.

In his Facebook post, Nico shared public health advice with those who had spent time around his dad recently: They need to isolate for 14 days since their last contact .

That could be a sizable number of people, given the way friends and loved ones say Ralph Marasco lived his life, surrounded by family, friends and clients.

He knew that because of his heart, he needed to scale back his work, friends and family said, but he couldn’t “go to Hawaii” and disappear. He would be bored. He loved his work.

Vince Leisey, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Ambassador Real Estate in Omaha, called Marasco “an icon in the real estate industry.”

Last year, Marasco won the company’s top award, the K. Carol Leisey Award, named after Leisey’s mom, a founder of the company.

“(Marasco) connected well with people, and he cared about them,” Leisey said.

On Facebook and Twitter, customers praised his work, including Jen Kelly, who wrote about his compassion and advice.

“He helped the girls and I rebuild our lives buying our current home,” she wrote, recalling his good heart, corny jokes and smile.

A friend of Ralph’s and Nico’s, Matt Beers, said Ralph usually baptized people quickly into his approach to humor.

“He’d walk in and say, ‘Hey, how are you? Nice to meet me,’ ” Beers said, laughing. “He was the smartest, funniest person I ever met.”

Co-worker Henry Kammandel remembered going on Tuesday house tours with Marasco when they were young. The two would pull up beside real estate agents they knew at open houses and fire squirt guns at them .

Both had kids at about the same age, he said, and nothing mattered more to Ralph than the accomplishments of son Nico.

In early March, Marasco traveled to Nashville with an Omaha contingent for a real estate conference, co-workers said. A vendor at the conference tested positive for the coronavirus, attendees were told by email. Ralph and the vendor did not come into contact, his co-workers and family said.

People who knew Marasco want him to be remembered for how he lived, not how he died.

Several mentioned his efforts centered around his Catholic faith. Others talked about his work on behalf of charities, including fighting juvenile diabetes.

One passion of Marasco’s was collecting cars. His favorite of the eight he owned was a 1961 Lincoln Continental convertible. It was the same model Ralph’s father, a car sales manager, used to drive baby Ralph home from the hospital.

Entrepreneur and Silicon Prairie News founder Jeff Slobotski, on Twitter, called Marasco “an amazing man” who “will be dearly missed in the Omaha community.”

In addition to his son, he is survived by his sisters and an uncle. A celebration of life is planned for his birthday, July 11.

World-Herald staff writers Cindy Gonzalez, Julie Anderson and Jessica Wade contributed to this report.

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