As Utah cases spike, advocate dies of COVID-19 in the veterans’ home that bears his name

William Christoffersen, a tireless advocate for Utah’s veterans who served more than 70 years with the American Legion, has died from complications of COVID-19, in the Salt Lake City veterans home named for him.

Christoffersen died Sunday, May 31 — six days before his 94th birthday, which would have been Saturday, the anniversary of D-Day.

“No one in my lifetime has done more for veterans in Utah than Bill Christoffersen,” said Terry Schow, former executive director of the Utah Department of Veterans Affairs, and Christoffersen’s successor representing Utah on the American Legion’s National Executive Committee, on Saturday.

As state veterans officials announced Christoffersen’s death, the Utah Department of Health reported the largest one-day number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state — 546 — with many of them coming from an ongoing outbreak at a meatpacking plant in Cache County.

The Bear River Health Department, which covers Cache, Box Elder and Rich counties, reported 197 new cases Saturday. The state’s tally of new cases in the Bear River jurisdiction was up 216 cases from Friday to Saturday, which reflects cases reported late Friday by the local department after the state’s daily report.

Last week, UDOH tested some 1,400 employees at the JBS meat processing facility in Hyrum. A department spokesman said Friday that “a significant number” of new positive cases were discovered in that round of testing.

Utah has seen 11,798 confirmed cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. Saturday is the 10th day in a row in which the state has had 200 or more new cases, in what Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, this week called “a sharp spike” in the disease’s spread in Utah.

Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 is at 121, with one new death reported Saturday: A man, older than age 85, living in a long-term care facility in Weber County.

Twenty more Utahns were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the last day, UDOH reported, bringing the total number of hospitalizations to 890 — with 116 still in the hospital Saturday. The state said 2,952 people were tested for COVID-19 since the last report, for a total of 235,149 tested since the pandemic began.

Christoffersen is one of two residents of the Salt Lake Veterans Home who have died from COVID-19. As of Thursday, the home has had 51 residents and 24 staff members test positive for COVID-19, according to Kelsey Price, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Veterans and Military Affairs.

Born on June 6, 1926, in the Cache Valley, Christoffersen marked his 18th birthday, the day he became eligible for the draft, on the day Allied forces stormed the beaches at Normandy in 1944. He enlisted in the Army, and served in the infantry in the Pacific.

“As a World War II veteran, William Christoffersen embodied the Greatest Generation and its commitment to service, personal responsibility and hard work,” Utah Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement, issued through the Utah VMA.

Standing over 6 feet tall, Christoffersen “was an imposing guy,” Schow said. He liked to wear cowboy boots, bolo ties and American Indian jewelry, so “he struck a presence when you saw him,” Schow said.

Christoffersen was an active member of the American Legion for 75 years. For nearly 50 of those years, he was a member of the group’s National Executive Committee — elected by Utah’s Legionnaires for multiple, successive two-year terms from 1963 to 1973, and again from 1975 to 2013.

(Photo courtesy of Terry Schow) William Christoffersen, right, carries the flag in a parade leading Utah's delegation at the 1999 American Legion national convention in Anaheim, Calif. Christoffersen, a Legionnaire for 75 years, died Sunday, May 31, 2020, of complications of COVID-19, at the age of 93.

Christoffersen lobbied state legislatures and Congress on behalf of veterans’ issues, Schow said. According to Schow, Christoffersen was instrumental in establishing the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Transition Assistance Program, or TAP, which gives information and tools to the 200,000 service members returning to civilian life every year.

Schow said Christoffersen, “a very patriotic man,” also lobbied repeatedly for a constitutional amendment to ban burning of the American flag. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, carried that legislation several times, Schow said. The last time, in 2006, the Senate voted 66-34 in favor of the resolution — one vote short of the two-thirds needed for a constitutional amendment.

In March 2013, the Salt Lake Veterans Home was renamed for Christoffersen, a move Schow championed. Christoffersen didn’t know about the honor in advance, Schow said; Christoffersen thought he was giving a tour to a visiting American Legion dignitary, and the renaming ceremony was held as a surprise.

Christoffersen had been living in the veterans home for about a year. He was humble about living in a building with his name on it, Schow said, and always thanked the nurses and staffers who helped him and other veterans.

Christoffersen is survived by his wife of 47 years, Elaine; nine children: Dixie Schwartz, Clair Christoffersen, Janet Douglass, Jill Cox, Scott Christoffersen, Mark Jones, Becky Guyre, Jeff Jones and Britt Jones; three sisters: Linda, Jeanine and Barbara; 19 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren. A private memorial service for family and friends will be scheduled for a later date. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations to the charity of one’s choice.