Speak to any of Mike Bjerkesett’s friends or family members and each one will come up with a different way to describe him: “Humble.” “Charming.” “The guy with 80 best friends.” Or this, from the security manager in his condominium building: “Nobody liked Mike … everyone loved him.” For a guy who spent most of his life in a wheelchair, those who knew Bjerkesett say they’ll remember him more for what he could do than what he couldn’t.
“He didn’t know the meaning of the word ‘no,’ ” said longtime friend and colleague Mike Semsch. “He’d figure out a way around it.”
Friends and family say they often forgot about Bjerkesett’s disability, because he seemed to forget about it himself. He rode up escalators in his wheelchair, because he couldn’t be bothered to find an elevator. He once drove a Corvette and then a convertible. And if there was a party happening in a basement somewhere, he’d find a way down the stairs.
Bjerkesett’s tenacity and ability to bring people from all walks of life together gave him a platform that he used to change the lives of people with disabilities. His life’s mission was to provide barrier-free housing options.
“He proved to me he was self-confident when the first time we were drinking he ordered a strawberry daiquiri,” said Tom LaSalle, a friend and colleague. “He contributed a great deal to improving the quality of life for handicapped people nationally.”
Bjerkesett died by suicide Jan. 18. He was 69. Friends and family say Bjerkesett’s death was shocking. He did not seem to be depressed, but was known for doing things his way.
“I don’t believe he was depressed, I think he just decided it was time,” his sister Marlene Jezierski said. “His last e-mail to me, he wrote: ‘I love you all. Thank you for bringing so much fun into my life. It’s time.’ ”
“He always played it close to the vest as far as what was going on in his head,” Jezierski said. “But he always knew — and cared — what was going on in everyone else’s heads.”
Bjerkesett was born into an Irish-Norwegian family, with smiling eyes to prove it. At Fridley High School, he was a star athlete. “He was the big man on campus,” said longtime friend and colleague Julee Quarve-Peterson. “With his sparking blue eyes and gorgeous hair, he could’ve gotten any girl to go on a date. His looks could melt you.”
After graduation, Bjerkesett attended Bemidji State University until a car crash in 1967 caused his paraplegia.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in business from what was then Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, then worked at North Memorial Medical Center as a rehabilitation counselor, a position he created while also becoming a leader of community handicap accessibility activists.
“He learned by doing,” Quarve-Peterson said. “You don’t go get a degree in accessibility.”
In 1974 he formed his first nonprofit, the United Handicapped Federation, and in 1975, the second, the National Handicap Housing Institute, where he served as executive director until his retirement in 2014. The nonprofit is considered one of the nation’s leading accessible housing developers and has designed and built more than 15,000 affordable accessible housing units in the country.
“He was fighting for accessibility back in the day when nobody knew what that meant,” Semsch said.
After retirement, Bjerkesett’s passion to improve the lives of people with disabilities continued as he formed another nonprofit, Accessible Architecture Inc., which will provide free accessibility designs and resources via the internet.
In a 2014 article in Access Press, an information source for the Minnesota disability community, Bjerkesett said: “I’ve spent so much time on these issues over the years, it’s important to share and pass on information to others.”
Bjerkesett is survived by sisters Marlene Jezierski and Karen Getting. Services have been held.