From his obituary in the Mesabi Daily News:
He was born and raised in Eveleth, graduating from Eveleth High School in 1964. He trained in cultural geography at Macalester College and the University of Minnesota. As a young man, he was actively involved in the West Bank folk music scene of the 1960s and ’70s; he later went on several tours of Europe, street singing, playing in bars and then in concerts with the String Band. He returned to the Iron Range, where he formed the Moose Wallow Ramblers in the mid-1970s and wrote the local hit, “I Like It in Duluth.”
John’s passion was the cultural heritage of the Range, especially the oral history and music of the immigrant groups from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. He delivered historical and musical programs in state parks, libraries and community centers throughout Minnesota; was a field worker for the Smithsonian, helping to bring a group of Finnish Americans from Palo to the Washington, D.C., Festival of American Folklife in 1980. Along with Alex Hietala and others he played Finnish American music in Alexander’s Old Time Band. He worked as a folklife specialist, helping to organize Ethnic Days at Ironworld (now Minnesota Discovery Center) in Chisholm and was the Host of KAXE’s Jackpine Jamboree, a traveling live radio program nominated for an award by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. His handcrafted maple syrup won blue ribbons at the St. Louis County Fair for several years.
In 1983, he married Carol Hepokoski. They lived for two years in St Paul, where John served as the folk arts coordinator for the Minnesota State Arts Board. Returning to the Iron Range, he and Carol co-parented two sons, Andy and Jonah. John often said that the most important thing he did during the years when his children were small was to hold them and rock them to sleep.
When Carol’s work moved them to the Hyde Park neighborhood in Chicago, John worked as a storyteller and musician in after-school programs and in senior centers throughout Chicago. During those years, he formed the band the South Side Swedes, sang with the Chicago Swedish Male Chorus, was active in the Chicago local of the International Workers of the World (the IWW “Wobblies”) and created handcrafted wild green wreaths that he sold at the annual Christmas Mart of the Swedish Museum in the Andersonville neighborhood.
In more recent years, he lived in Rochester, Minn., where he worked for a time with the Diversity Council and volunteered with the annual World Fest, showcasing Rochester’s many ethnic cultures. He also served as the director of the Saint Paul Swedish Male Chorus, the oldest continuous performing Swedish Male Chorus in the United States, was active in the Sons of Norway, and played with The Nodding Wild Onions.
John was a scholar of Iron Range history, as well as Finnish American, Slovenian Button Accordion, lumberjack and union musical traditions. He was active in the storytelling communities in Chicago and Minnesota. He’ll be remembered for his sense of humor, including his telling of “Ole and Lena” jokes.
A year ago, John was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He and Carol retired back to their cabin south of Eveleth on Long Lake.
He is survived by his wife, the Rev. Dr. Carol Hepokoski; his sons, Andy (Margaret) Rosequist of Boston, and Jonah Berquist of San Francisco; brother, Robert (Sally) Berquist of Duluth; brother-in-law, Henry Hepokoski of Menahga, Minn.; nieces, nephews, and cousins in Minnesota, Michigan and Norway; as well as many beloved colleagues and friends.
John was preceded in death by his parents, Olaf and Daisy (Andersen) Berquist.
Visitation will be from 1 p.m until the 2 p.m. memorial service on Thursday, May 19, at Range Funeral Home, Virginia. A luncheon will follow at the Mesabi Unitarian Universalist Church, 230 S. 7th St., Virginia. Arrangements are with Range Funeral Home in Virginia. To sign the online guestbook or to send condolences, please visit: www.rangefuneralhomes.com. A celebration of John’s life in music and story is being planned for early-August. Memorial donations can be made to Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, Mesabi Unitarian Universalist Church, Faithful Fools Ministry in San Francisco or organization of donor’s choice.
Below is a cover version of “I Like it in Duluth” performed by Duluth band Father Hennepin. This version of the song was released in 2001, and the video was produced by Mike Scholtz in 2009 using archival footage.
Leave a Comment
Only registered members can post a comment , Login / Register Here