Dying man got his wish: to ride across the new St. Croix River bridge

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OAK PARK HEIGHTS, Minn. — Jack Bohmert can die a happy man.

Bohmert, 82, of Oak Park Heights, who is suffering from congestive heart failure and a massive blood clot, has been told he only has days or weeks to live. After being sent home for hospice care two weeks ago, he created a bucket list of last wishes and shared them with his family.

At the top of his list: Drive across the new St. Croix River bridge.

The bridge won't officially open to the public until within 24 hours of the ribbon-cutting on Aug. 2, but Bohmert's granddaughter, Kelli Espiritu, wasn't deterred. Through Facebook, she was connected with Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski, who, in turn, contacted the Minnesota Department of Transportation.

Just before 11 a.m. Thursday, bridge construction manager Terry Zoller helped load Bohmert, a Navy veteran and retired truck driver, into the passenger seat of his MnDOT-issued burgundy Honda Pilot and drove him across the bridge.

Zoller stopped in the middle of the bridge to let Bohmert get out and have a look around. He helped Bohmert put on a MnDOT-issued neon-yellow reflective vest and hard hat. "We've got to make you look official," he said.

As they crossed into Wisconsin, Zoller turned to give Bohmert the happy — and historic — news: He was the first member of the general public to cross the mile-long bridge.

"Now you have officially crossed the bridge," he said. "You are in Wisconsin. I'm going to make a U-turn, and then you can say you've crossed it twice. ...You crossed the bridge before the governor did!"

"Oh man, I can't believe this! This is beautiful," said Bohmert, who is legally blind. "I can't see too good, but it's beautiful. This is great!"

Color guards honored fellow vet

About 50 people gathered to send Bohmert off on his journey and to greet him when he returned. Among them were color guard units from VFW Post 10818 in New Richmond, Wis., and the American Legion in Bayport.

"I don't need so much attention," Bohmert said. "I can't believe this. There are all these important people here. I didn't know who they were. Everybody is being so nice to me. It's too much. I was just trying to go across the bridge, like everybody else."

A huge American flag, courtesy of Stillwater Towing, was erected in the parking lot of Phil's Tara Hideaway in honor of Bohmert. Friends and family also lined the Beach Road overpass to wave to him as he returned from the crossing.

"He's just so happy that he got to cross this off his bucket list, and I'm happy too," said his daughter Lonnie Bohnen, of Willernie. "It's such a special celebration of life while he's still here. People don't get to experience that very often."

Zoller said he was glad he could help make a dying man's wish come true.

"I thought, 'How can you say no?'" he said. "We would definitely accommodate this. There was no issue with that."

But he added that Bohmert's circumstances were special.

"This was a one-time deal for a very special occasion," he said. "It's not something we would normally ever do."

Grew up in White Bear Lake

Bohmert was born in St. Paul and spent his childhood in White Bear Lake. A member of the U.S. Navy, Bohmert served in the Korean War.

Jerry Simon, commander of the color guard for the New Richmond VFW post, said it was an honor to honor a fellow veteran.

"I'm at a loss for words," he said. "We're very privileged to do this."

J.R. Helgut of the Bayport American Legion said he and the other color guard members were thrilled to have been asked to participate. "It's just a nice request, and it's something we really wanted to do and get involved in," he said. "It's as much enjoyment for us, as it is for him."

Bohmert and his longtime partner, Virginia Ritzer, have lived in the Stillwater area for more than 40 years. From previous marriages, the couple has nine children, 17 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.

Ritzer said Bohmert has a large blood clot in his heart and two blocked valves and is not a candidate for open-heart surgery. Doctors have told the couple that he does not have long to live.

"It might just be days," she said, "but his brother (David Bohmert) says he's stubborn, and that he'll stick around."

Ritzer and Bohmert, who live in the Fox Hollow condominiums near the new bridge, have watched since construction began in 2013.

"We have waited so many years for this," she said. "They started taking down homes in (Lower) Oak Park Heights over 30 years ago, and then it was one delay after another and now finally ... It's more than he expected. He's just overwhelmed."

Bohmert got to check another "bucket list" item off his list on Tuesday. He wanted to take one last trip to the lake for the Fourth of July.

His final item: "Live until his 83rd birthday on July 17."

"We're all hoping he makes it," said Espiritu, who lives in New Richmond.

As Bohmert was about to cross the bridge, grandson Scott Bohnen of White Bear Lake jokingly asked if had a life jacket. After they returned, Bohnen said his grandfather had given all of his grandchildren the memory of a lifetime.

"You did it, Grandpa!" Bohnen said. "Every time we cross that bridge now, we'll think of you."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.