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Every day, health officials, politicians and journalists pour over updated numbers meant to shed light on the COVID-19 pandemic in Utah. But each statistic represents a person — including each number in the death count. In the past nine months, hundreds of Utahns have lost their lives due to the disease. As 2020 comes to a close, KUER is remembering the lives of a few of them.

More Than A Number: Remembering William E. Christofferson

An illustration of William Christofferson.
Renee Bright
Veteran and veteran’s advocate William E. Christofferson was 93-years-old when he died of COVID-19 in May.

Born and raised in Cache Valley, William Christofferson, who died at the age of 93 due to COVID-19, dedicated his life to serving veterans in Utah and across the country.

“There has not been a piece of veteran’s legislation in the state of Utah the last 50 years that Bill Christofferson was not a part of,” said Terry Schow, a friend and Vietnam War veteran who served with Christofferson in the American Legion.

Christofferson was born on June 6, 1926 — 18 years to the day before the D-Day landings on Normandy Beach.

He graduated from South Cache High School in 1944 and was drafted into the Army just two weeks later. With supplies running low at that point, Christofferson trained with a wooden rifle. But he became a leader of his platoon, and fought several battles in the Pacific theater, serving until the war ended in 1945.

When he came home, he found a job as a grave digger. He also went on to run a dairy farm and lumber yard, and worked as a general contractor.

But Schow said Christofferson’s real mission was serving his fellow veterans.

“I often say to folks, Bill did more by accident than a lot of people do on purpose,” he said. “This whole idea of duty, honor [and] country means so much, particularly to these World War II guys. He felt he owed it to his fellow service members and to the generations that came after him.”

A photo of Christofferson with other veteran advocates and former Gov. Jon Huntsman.
Courtesy of Terry Schow
Christofferson and other veteran advocates with former Gov. Jon Huntsman at the Utah State Capitol, signing a bill that elevated the Utah Division of Veterans Affairs to a full state department.

Christofferson became a member of the American Legion before returning home from the war, and would spend the next 70 years serving almost continuously, largely on a volunteer basis.

He was named a District Commander in 1956, and State Commander three years later, becoming the youngest person in the country to hold the position. He was elected to the National Executive Committee in 1966, where he would serve for nearly five decades — the longest serving executive in American Legion history.

Over the course of his long career advocating for veterans in Utah and across the country, Christofferson had many successes. He helped establish Utah’s only Veterans Cemetery and Memorial Park, secured multimillion dollar grants for the Agent Orange Family Assistance Program and organized early programs to assist homeless veterans, Schow said. He also served on the VA Medical Center Advisory Board for many years.

One of his greatest accomplishments was helping build the state’s first veteran’s home for aging and disabled veterans, which would take over three decades. Schow said Christofferson faced many challenges and disappointments along the way, but never backed down. The home was completed in 1998.

A photo of Christofferson with his wife Elaine and Schow at the renaming of the Salt Lake Veterans Home after him, 2013.
Courtesy of Terry Schow
Christofferson with his wife Elaine and Schow at the renaming of the Salt Lake Veterans Home after him, 2013.

It’s the smallest of the state’s four veteran’s homes, with 81 beds in mostly shared rooms. Schow said that made it especially vulnerable to COVID-19. An outbreak in May ended up infecting 51 residents and killing 13, including Christofferson. It also accounts for more than a third of all veteran deaths from COVID-19 in Utah.

And while the months leading up to the outbreak were difficult — residents had to spend most of their time in their rooms or in isolation units at the VA Medical Center — Schow said Christofferson was always grateful for the support he was given.

“His standard statement was, ‘These people are so wonderful, I appreciate what they've done for me,’” he said. “That's the kind of guy he was. He's constantly thanking people and apologizing because he might need to help with some things.”

Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, worked with Christofferson on a number of veteran related bills. But he first knew him by reputation. Christofferson knew Davis’ father, also a WWII veteran and leader in the American Legion.

“I was almost in awe of him,” Davis said. “He gave his life to the service to his country. And when he talked to you, you just wanted to help in any way you could to further the cause.”

Davis said Christofferson’s dedication to veterans should serve as an example to others, especially during the pandemic when a collective spirit is needed more than ever.

“I just think, why aren't we protecting one another?” he said. “You look at a person like Bill who did so much for the veterans. And if a person wears a mask today, they're really serving their fellow man. And what a salute [to him] that would be.”

Christofferson died May 31, less than a week shy of his 94th birthday.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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