Oak Park Heights veteran in hospice becomes 1st to ride across new bridge

Jack Bohmert of Oak Park Heights, left, and Virginia Ritzer, his significant other, look toward Stillwater during a stop on a July 6 trip across the new St. Croix Crossing Bridge. Bohmert became the first member of the general public to get a ride from MnDOT across the bridge. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Korean War veteran Jack Bohmert checked an item off his bucket list July 6 and made history at the same time.

At about 11 a.m. Thursday morning, the 82-year-old Oak Park Heights man became the first member of the general public to take a ride across the new St. Croix Crossing bridge.

He made the trip in the passenger seat of construction manager Terry Zoller’s Honda Pilot. They left from Oak Park Crossing Park in Oak Park Heights, and stopped halfway across the river to get out and walk on the bridge deck before completing the trip to Wisconsin. On his return, Bohmert was greeted by U.S. flags flying and people cheering from the Beach Road bridge over Highway 36.

“This is the first non-construction-worker we’ve taken across,” Zoller said.

The bridge isn’t open to traffic yet — a ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled for Aug. 2, with the bridge opening within 24 hours. An early crossing like this is unique.

“This was a one-time deal for a very special occasion — it’s not something we would normally ever do,” Zohler said.

Construction manager Terry Zoller’s Honda Pilot carries Bohmert across the bridge. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Diagnosed with congestive failure in June, Bohmert entered hospice because he wasn’t a candidate for surgery.

His longtime significant other, Virginia Ritzer, said he had several items on his bucket list.

“He wanted to live until his birthday on [July] 17, he wanted to go up to the lake … and he wanted to cross the bridge when it opened,” she said.

Bohmert checked one item off the list when he spent the Fourth of July at a cabin near Rice Lake in Wisconsin. He credits his granddaughter Kelli Espiritu for helping him check off another.

When Espiritu heard “Grandpa Jack” wasn’t sure he’d make it long enough to see the bridge open, she decided to make sure he crossed.

“For me it was like, whatever I have to do, I’ll do,” she said.

Espiritu put a call out on social media, and friends reached out to Stillwater Mayor Ted Kozlowski. He contacted Espiritu and said he’d make a call.

WATCH: Espiritu shared a video of Jack Bohmert crossing the bridge on Facebook.

Dozens of people came to Oak Park Crossing Park to send Bohmert off. Fellow members of the Bayport American Legion came, as well as a color guard from the New Richmond VFW, which made him an honorary member of the post.

“It’s quite an honor for us to do that,” said Jerry Simon, commander of the VFW’s color guard.

Bohmert, who grew up in the White Bear Lake and Willernie area, served as a signalman on a destroyer in the Korean War and made three voyages from 1951-55.

Later, he was a construction worker and helped build the Lafayette Bridge in St. Paul. He was also a truck driver for years, and he retired from ESR in Stillwater.

Bohmert and Ritzer met in Bayport and have been together about four decades. Between them they have nine children, 17 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, Ritzer said. Many were present July 6.

“This is kind of like a celebration of his life, while he’s still alive,” said Bohmert’s daughter Lonnie Bohnen, of Willernie.

Barb Anderson, of Amery, Wis., kisses her brother Jack Bohmerton on the St. Croix Crossing bridge July 6. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)

Bohmert was surprised by all the attention.

“I can’t believe it,” he said. “I don’t need this much attention.”

“It’s wonderful — I can’t believe it’s happening,” Ritzer said. “We waited so many years. They started taking down the homes in Oak Park 30 years ago, and then it was one thing after another.”

Ritzer and seven other family members accompanied Bohmert during his trip across the bridge. Although Bohmert can’t see well (he’s legally blind), his grandson Scott Bohnen said he clearly enjoyed the trip.

Scott Bohnen said the whole family is proud of his grandfather, and the crossing is a memory each family member will cherish.

“Grandpa, every time we drive across that bridge now, we’re going to think of you,” Bohnen said.

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]

Construction manager Terry Zoller’s Honda Pilot carries Bohmert across the bridge. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)
Construction manager Terry Zoller’s Honda Pilot carries Bohmert across the bridge. (Gazette staff photo by Jonathan Young)