COVID-19 victim John Bjorkman dedicated his life to education


A South Dakotan who became well known for documenting his struggles with COVID-19 died Tuesday after fighting the virus for weeks. Now his family is urging the public to be safe, social distance and wear a mask.

John Bjorkman, 66, of De Smet, died Tuesday morning due to COVID-19 complications, his family said. He spent 30 days fighting the illness.

Friends and family remember him as a kind-hearted man with a dedication to education. He was a retired educator who had recently moved to be closer to his children and grandchildren in De Smet, according to his wife Chris Bjorkman. He spent his life in school.

“He’s been in school since kindergarten,” Chris said.

John Bjorkman started his career in education as a teacher in 1977. Five year later he went back to get his master’s degree at South Dakota State University where he graduated in 1983. He spent 13 years as the principal at Howard Elementary School in Howard and in 2002 got his superintendent certification at the University of Sioux Falls.

He served as superintendent of the Castlewood, Gettysburg, Oldham-Ramona and Waverly-South Shore School Districts throughout his career before retiring in 2017.

Chris said John was a great storyteller, which helped him connect with children. She remembers that as a superintendent he was constantly buying shoes and socks for kids who didn’t have any. At one point, he even bought a student a pair of glasses.

“He had done a lot of things for a lot of kids, he was always buying socks or shoes for kids, I mean that was the type of person he was,” Chris said.

John Meyer, a friend and current superintendent of Waverly-South Shore, worked with John Bjorkman for five years before John’s retirement. Meyer remembers John as an “easy to like guy.” Everybody was a friend to him, Meyer said. 

He said Bjorkman’s “dedication to South Dakota’s children and their education” will always stick with him.

Both John and his wife, Chris, struggled with COVID-19, and John was open about his fight via posts on Facebook. According to Chris, she and her husband were following all safety guidelines before they got the coronavirus.

What hurt John the most was not being able to see his children and grandchildren.

“With COVID he would have his ups and downs and he would just crash where he couldn’t breathe all of a sudden,” Chris said, “He wanted people to wear masks and social distance. He didn’t want people to go through what he went through.”

John tested positive for COVID-19 Sept. 14, and just a few days later was hospitalized because he couldn’t breathe. His birthday on Sept. 21 was spent at the hospital in De Smet receiving oxygen. 

As his condition worsened, Bjorkman told his Facebook followers that he was being flown to Marshall, Minnesota after he says he was told there was no room for him in any hospitals in the Sioux Falls area. Two days after his birthday, he was placed on a ventilator. After improving, doctors at Marshall decided to send him back to De Smet Memorial Hospital on Sept. 30. The next morning, he was flown out again to Avera McKennan in Sioux Falls, where he died about three weeks later. 

John Bjorkman is survived by his wife Chris, two sons (Nick and Matthew), one daughter (Kassi Mlcak) and four grandchildren.

There will be a family-only service at 2 p.m. on Thursday at American Lutheran Church in De Smet.

A “celebration of life” for John’s friends is being planned 6-9 months later when it is safer for groups to gather, Chris said.

If you would like to send cards or your memories of John, you can send them to Chris Bjorkman at 20788 Prairie Ave SW, De Smet, SD 57231.

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