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John Bjorkquist – Okemos High School – September 1961 – June 1992

I student taught at East Lansing High in Biology under critic teacher Mr. Edward Graper. He was retiring that spring and said he was sure I could have his job. However, he said that Okemos was apparently the “up and coming” system of the area, and that I should check on a job opening there that he knew about.

I was hired by Superintendent George Richards and Principal Joseph Arasim. I was to teach four classes of Biology and one of Physical Science, coach the cross-country team, be assistant coach of the track team, and sponsor the sophomore class and the Junior Engineering and Technical Society (JETS) club – a society that I knew very little about! It was quite a load for a 21-year old right out of college with a wife and 3½-month old baby.

Okemos High at the time was a “separated-building” style of architecture, a fairly inexpensive “California-style” school—all that they could get the voters to pass.

I truly believe a teacher is a mosaic of people you have met (especially, other teachers) and all your past experiences in life. Since I had run track and cross-county in high school and college, I really enjoyed coaching these sports 11 or 12 years at OHS.

My college background in zoology and fisheries biology, coupled with my love of the outdoors gave a special “activity flavor” to all of my classes. Lots of outdoor nature hikes studying wild flowers and various local fauna, field trips (e.g., to Lansing water purification plant and East Lansing wastewater treatment plant).

My experience as a State Apiary (Bee) inspector and a keeper of honeybees led to setting up hives on school property, and eventually a formal class in beekeeping. Some of my students still keep bees as a result of taking that class. I still remember Dan Stoltz giving his first teaching “lesson” in a MSU entomology class. He was a pro right from the start. My experience in Anatomy and Physiology classes at MSU, and my friendship with local Williamston Biology teacher Fred Whims, led to the setting up of evening dissection classes of cats, baby pigs, etc. This was, of course, not for credit, but mainly for those students very interested in Anatomy. Some later pursued medical careers.

As an aside to the above, I remember we kept our “bug collection” in the unfinished crawl space under my room. We kept dermestid flesh-eating beetles (started from MSU museum’s “bug house”). The beetles would completely devour all flesh from dead rabbits and older mammals that we would put in there, and leave us with nice, clean skeletons.

As another aside – during the “Big Snow” of 1965, Bill Purnell, my science student who was sponsored by Dow Chemical in Midland, was planning on staying over the weekend in my room to gather continuous data on his biochemical research project. The snowstorm occurred and Bill was forced to stay an extra three days (all roads were closed). So Bill crawled down into the basement, followed heat vents to the kitchen, obtained food, and managed to stay alive until the roads were plowed!

Another interesting anecdote involved a fraudulent teacher, hired as a Mr. Frank Crane. He had apparently falsified credentials to get the job as a speech teacher. His students won state awards until a local cop recognized his picture in the paper from a bowling tournament that Crane had won, and the police then came and got him. He had falsified his name, too. (But he was a great teacher!) He was wanted on an unrelated charge.

An area of teaching that I am particularly proud of involved my formation of a Field Ecology course. OHS was blessed with a mature Beech-Maple woodlot right in our backyard. This ecosystem was especially accessible when Okemos initiated the two-hour schedule of classes.

I obtained a driver’s license that enabled me to drive a school bus. They let me use the oldest bus in the fleet. Many side trips developed to places like Ferguson Park, where a rich aquatic ecosystem was instantly available to two-hour field trips. We seined the Red Cedar, with the help of MSU’s Limnology graduate students. We learned how to use portable water sampling kits; test for oxygen, nitrates, phosphates, and conduct biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) tests with the help of the staff in the Trowbridge Road Wastewater Plant in Lansing.

So, as our ecology curriculum expanded, it seemed natural that we would widen our scope of study to include the entire Red Cedar River watershed, from the origin of the river in the “Cedar Creek” of the Pinckney area, to its exit into the Grand River in Lansing. Today, we have to consult the school “Lawyers” etc., but then (circa ’69 - ’72), we loaded about ten canoes onto about eight cars and trucks and set off, my senior lab assistants, student teacher, and I, for Cedar Lake with an abundance of aquatic test kits. Our goal was to document the chemical and physical changes in the Red Cedar River along the entire course of the watershed.

I remember that, during one trip, Brenda (Cannon) Lelli was the chief data recorder. All teams would feed her their data as she sat in the middle of her canoe, with her two paddlers keeping her canoe in the middle of the pack. Bill Frank was another key “data man.” I believe, after his college career, he ended up working for an environmental engineering group, and helped the city of Lansing with its wastewater planning. We also documented untreated septic lines dumping illegally into the river. I remember Andrea Pile working on cleaning up an illegal industrial effluent from Reo in Lansing. (She recently married one of my canoeing/student friends, Scott Olson, of OHS).

We made some big discovering in the old former Utilex Ball Bearing Plant of Fowlerville. We discovered “stuck” lift gates in the Trowbridge Road Wastewater Treatment Plant in Lansing, along with gross sewage contaminant along their river banks.

One of the “neatest” parts of being a local teacher is the present day communication with former students. For example, Jim Somers, class of ’64, was my cross-county captain. I tried to run myself in most of the practices, being in my early 20’s.  (I just called Jim about 15 minutes ago, to obtain the address of Kerry Byrnes, another OHS runner. Kerry has e-published on the OHS Alumni Site a memoir that includes some memories of the “good ol’ days” at OHS. The website is a work in progress being developed by schoolmates Bob Bratzler '64 and Rod Ellis '65.

Many OHS students were members of the late Jim Fletcher’s classes in wood-working. Tom Cannon, today a master wood-worker and carpenter, started building home-made canoes and kayaks in Jim’s classes. My own son, Dave, and I built our first wood-strip canoe in Jim’s lab during Spring Break of about 1977. We ended up having intramural races on the Red Cedar River for several years, mostly with home-made canoes.

Verlen Kruger, world-renowned cross-continental paddler used to come over after school to help teach canoeing skills to our students on the Red Cedar. He ended up paddling from the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of South America.

Tom Cannon (class of ’72 or ’73) later became a pro canoe racer with the Michigan Canoe-Racing Association (MCRA) and still races to this day, being 60+ years old! Don Dike, still in Okemos, played percussion in the OHS band and raced with this group.

The Cannon family (Tom, Mike, Barb) as well as Brenda (Cannon) Lelli and Susan Cannon, who was my lab assistant in biology, are close acquaintances of mine. Susan raced canoe in the famous Ausable Marathon race (180 miles) with her brother Tom. She now owns her own Vet clinic in Ishpeming, Michigan.

The point is that even seemingly small ‘side interests” during your school years, can develop into occupational and/or recreational chief interests decades later. With my two steel hips, I no longer run, but bike and canoe (on the Red Cedar) regularly at 76 years old, sometimes still with my former students.

I’ll be attending the OHS reunion this October as a guest of Brenda, my Red Cedar “Data Master.”

More on Biology revisions to come in the next memoir.


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