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Marlene Jezierski, sister of the late SMSU alumnus and disability advocate Michael Bjerkesett, will read from her book about his life on Wednesday, Feb. 5 at noon in the William Whipple Gallery, located in the McFarland Library at SMSU.

The book, which is self-published, is entitled “When Your Legs are Wheels.”

Bjerkesett was a pioneer of handicap accessible housing and a 1971 Charter Class alumnus. In October, 2019, he gifted $1.5 million to the SMSU Foundation, the single largest gift by an alum in the history of the institution.

“I had always had it in my head to write a book about him, but he’d ignore me whenever I wanted to talk about it,” said Jezierski. “I felt strongly that his life example could teach others. He inspired so many when he lived, and his story can inspire others when he is gone.”

Bjerkesett was involved in a car accident following his sophomore year at Bemidji State that left him a paraplegic. He heard about SMSU and the fact it was constructed to be fully accessible for students with disabilities, so he transferred, graduating with a Business degree.

Bjerkesett and several partners founded the National Handicap Housing Institute in 1975 after seeing the need for accessible housing for people with mobility impairments. It is considered one of the country’s leading accessible housing developers and has designed and built more than 50 apartment buildings totaling over 15,000 units across the country.

The book was a labor of love for Jezierski, and chronicles Bjerkesett’s life through the words and memories of his sister and his many friends. Following his death on Jan. 18, 2017, the  “Remembering” column in the Star Tribune featured the headline, “The Guy With 80 Best Friends Helped People With Disabilities.” Jezierski believes there were more than that.

The book paints a loving picture of a vibrant young man trying to remain positive about his physical shortcomings, all the while working to better the lives of other disabled individuals. It traces his life as a boy, through his college years, and into adulthood.

The stories give insight into Bjerkesett’s life and personality. He had a deep love of music, cars and photography, said Jezierski. He also had a habit of not putting a stamp on bills he mailed — he would put the address of the billing company on the return address, explaining he didn’t feel the need to pay postage on top of the billed amount.

Jezierski also writes about her brother’s several relationships with women, and the reason, she believes, he never married. “I knew without being told he didn’t want anyone else taking care of him, that he wanted to be his own person, and didn’t want to burden anyone else.” Bjerkesett was engaged to Shelly Karnis while a student at SMSU, and suddenly ended the engagement, telling her, “You’re young. You’re going to want to dance. You’re going to want to have babies.”

What did she learn about her brother? “I learned more about his acumen in the business world, about how good he was with money, and how independent he was, and wanted to be. And in interviewing friends, they became my friends. It helped me in the grieving process.”

The book is available for $20 by contacting Jezierski at: [email protected]. She will have several for sale at the Feb. 5 reading.

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