St. Marie’s accomplishments recalled
A longtime disability rights activist whose lifetime accomplishments were tainted by scandal has died. John Paul St. Marie St. Marie was an effective advocate for Minnesota’s disability community for most of his adult life. The Minneapolis resident died at age 74 in August and is survived by his wife, son and nieces.
Born in Bayport, St. Marie contracted polio at age eight. He contracted the disease one year before the polio vaccine became available. Polio left him paralyzed from the neck down. According to his obituary, at age 15 he underwent a series of risky spinal fusion surgeries to prolong his life.
He was a graduate of Stillwater High School, St. Thomas College (now University of St. Thomas) and the University of Minnesota Law School. He worked for the Hennepin County Attorney’s for 28 years until retiring in 2003 due to the progressive effects of post-polio syndrome.
St. Marie’s accomplishments on behalf of Minnesotans with disabilities were many. In 1978, he co-founded Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit organization providing outdoor adventures for all ages and abilities. He was one of the co-founders of the United Handicapped Federation (UHF). Many of today’s disability advocacy groups have their roots in UHF’s efforts.
He served on the board of Accessible Space, Inc. and the Minneapolis Mayor’s Committee for Handicapped Access, which is now the Mayor’s Advisory Committee on Disability. St. Marie was instrumental in pushing Minneapolis to become one of the first cities in the country to grade sidewalk curbs, making them wheelchair accessible. He also was on the Metropolitan Council advisory group which developed Metro Mobility. He enjoyed travel and was an avid sports fan.
Professionally, St. Marie worked for 28 years in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office. He didn’t prosecute cases, but represented social service agencies, dispensed or revoked foster care licenses, and advocated for people with disabilities and mental illness to receive hospitalization.
In 2009 St. Marie was one of several people arrested after an investigation of the “Minnesota Nice Guys” prostitution ring. He was sentenced to 15 years’ probation and other conditions in 2010. He was accused of violating probation in 2012, and was sentenced in 2013 to more than two years in a Minnesota Department of Corrections community care home.
A memorial service was held in September in Minneapolis.
Gjerstad’s musical talent shone through
Gary Gjerstad is remembered as a talented musician and community leader during his years in Minnesota and beyond. Gjerstad, 67, died in September in Britt, Iowa.
As a child and teen, Gjerstad attended the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, then lived in Des Moines and worked for the Iowa Commission for the Blind. During his 25 years in Fairmont, Minnesota, 1976-2001, Gjerstad launched his professional music career. He was organist with the Jack Schultz Orchestra, touring the ballrooms of the Midwest, Texas and Arizona. He then moved to Arizona, where he worked for the Eagle Aerie Charter School music program for several years. He performed at Arizona Diamonds baseball and Arizona State University football games.
Gjerstad returned to Iowa in 2015. Everywhere he lived, Gjerstad was an accomplished church musician and community volunteer, holding leadership positions in Lions Clubs. He was an avid sports fan. He was commencement speaker at West Hancock High School in Britt in 2017. One of his favorite activities was when he could reads his Braille books with schoolchildren.
He was a member of the River City Barbershop Chorus in Mason City, Iowa and was presented with the Prestigious Barbershopper of Distinction Award in 2018.
He is survived by two brothers and their families. Services have been held.