Willy's Stomping Grounds… Forever: Parents Preserve Memory of Their Son Through a Public Land Donation
A new wildlife management area in western Minnesota honors the memory of a special little boy.
Barak "B.J." and Katie Bjorge of Cottonwood, Minnesota, are donating 160 acres so that future generations of kids can play on the land their son, Willy, loved dearly.
In August 2002, then-8-year-old Willy Bjorge tragically was struck and killed by a vehicle while attending a county fair in southwest Minnesota. The previous year, his parents had purchased the upland hunting land near the community of Ivanhoe. Willy loved the property, and his father remembers the lad racing around the place, chasing pigeons with his BB gun, catching garter snakes and even swimming in the small wildlife pond.
"We were out there every weekend and he loved it," B.J. Bjorge says. "Willy saw everything and touched everything. He always stopped to smell the roses."
B.J., an outgoing affable man despite enduring the personal tragedy, is a retired deputy from the Dakota County (Minnesota) Sheriff's Department. He chuckles while remembering that he represented a law enforcement role model for his son - until he bought the land in Minnesota prairie country.
"Before we bought that land, Willy always talked about being a firefighter, a cop or an ambulance driver. I was a cop, and his mom's a fire inspector," B.J. Bjorge said. "Not long before the accident, though, he told my cousin, ‘Don't tell mom and dad, but I'm going to be a farmer!'"
After their son died, the Bjorges began considering donating the property as Willy's share of their estate. B.J. read how people had donated property in the name of a lost loved one, and he was thinking of doing something similar to honor Willy. Avid outdoorspeople, the Bjorges by happenstance bumped into Pheasants Forever's David Bue while attending Pheasant Fest in?Des Moines in 2007.
PF vice president of development, Bue works with farmers, ranchers and other landowners to help incorporate conservation into estate planning. Touched by their story, he immediately wanted to assist.
"B.J. is such a likeable guy, a real storyteller," Bue recalls of their first meeting. "I remember my eyes filling with tears when he told me Willy's story.
"I said I'd be honored to help in any way," Bue said.
The property, which is not far from the South?Dakota border, sits amidst some of Minnesota's best pheasant habitat. Several public parcels exist nearby. The project, coupled with Bjorge's sound management of the property, dovetails nicely with habitat efforts in the area. The 13-acre pond on the property, for example, has a recently installed water control structure to help eliminate fathead minnows and keep it viable for waterfowl.
The Bjorges have a passion for conservation that hearkens to B.J.'s days as a pastor's son traveling around the heart of the nation's pheasant country during the 1960s and '70s. His mother grew up in southwestern Minnesota, and he visited the area regularly as a youth, including farms owned by his uncles.
A city girl her whole life, Katie Bjorge grew up in St.?Paul, but developed a love for the land she shared with her husband and Willy, her only child. Though she agreed to buy the land as an outdoor outlet for her husband, she cherishes the family experiences they shared there with Willy.
"I've always liked nature, but for me owning farmland and raising some pheasants on it was a complete learning experience," she said. "I?remember visiting a small wetland there where we'd hear frogs. With Willy, we'd always imagine and make up frog conversations to go with their croaking."
The strength in Katie's voice today as she recounts the loss of her son and honoring his memory is amazing, moving and inspiring.
"Willy was my gift to borrow, and unfortunately not mine to keep," she said. "I don't know why. The day I know the answer to that question will be the day I'm back with him."
Part of the healing process for her and her husband has been not to pretend Willy didn't exist. They want to keep his memory alive in a number of ways, including the land donation.
"We made a conscious decision afterwards to get better, not bitter - to try and pull some good out of the tragedy," Katie says.
Willy was named after her father, William Letourneau, an avid outdoorsman in his own right who passed away before his grandson was born. Katie says that sharing and dedicating the land honors both of the Williams in her life. Katie and BJ both gave a special thanks to Nancy Bormann, their CPA, for helping research donation options and structuring the gift gratis.
Bue structured a life estate plan for the property that the Bjorges can enjoy for the remainder of their lives, while knowing that when they pass, the public land will always align with their dedication to conservation.
"B.J didn't do this for recognition, but he believes that telling people about this might convince other landowners to think about what eventually will happen to their land," Bue said. "He's concerned about the loss of hunting lands and good wildlife habitat. He's a real visionary in this regard."
The family is keeping some acreage with a house and their personal property, and B.J. keeps a personal working connection to the land.
"One of the reasons my wife still works is to support my farming habit," he jokes.
An incredible gift from anyone, especially a working-class family like the Bjorges, the land has an appraised value of more than $250,000. Katie and B.J. have requested that the public ground retain the name of their son in perpetuity.
"We are seeing more of these projects as an organization since we formed the Forever Land Trust four years ago," Bue said. "Ownership of 70 percent of the private land in the country will turn over in the next 20 years. That's a big opportunity to protect and preserve wild places."
Thanks to the Bjorge's gift, future generations of hunters and the habitat of western Minnesota will forever benefit from Willy's love of the outdoors and life. His parents cherish every moment they shared with young?Willy, and know this donation will help keep his memory alive.
"I think most parents know that we learn as much from our children as they learn from us," Katie Bjorge says. "Willy taught me so many lessons, and I'm a far better person for having?him in my life."
Readers interested in the Forever Land Trust program should contact David R. Bue, Pheasants Forever Vice President of Development, at (218) 340-5519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.