Wife's death separates couple after 75 years of marriage
DILWORTH, Minn. - At age 23, Clifford Bjerke's mother was worried he'd become an old bachelor. So she sent him down the road to visit young Mildred Warwick, the only girl she knew worth marrying.
Clifford knew 18-year-old Mildred loved horses, so he jumped on his "Black Beauty" horse to pay her visit.
He started to worry she would pick the horse instead of him.
The couple married June 1, 1937, in a Crocker, S.D., parsonage. Few could afford church weddings in those days, Clifford said.
They stayed married for 75 years, during which they raised five children, worked at Concordia College for more than two decades, and eventually became the "lovebirds" of Serenity Assisted Living in Dilworth. They received a signed photograph of President Barack Obama to commemorate their diamond anniversary last year.
The Forum interviewed the Bjerkes about their long and happy marriage in advance of Valentine's Day.
While 98-year-old Clifford shared tales of their life with a pronounced Norwegian lilt, Mildred shared just one piece of advice.
"Make him behave," she said, seated next to Clifford on a loveseat in Serenity's library area.
The couple didn't make it to what would have been a 76th Valentine's Day.
Mildred, 94, passed away Thursday.
Their love was obvious to everyone who lived and worked at Serenity Assisted Living, said Jen Fillippi, a nurse there. They prayed together before every meal.
"They are pretty much inseparable," she said last month.
Clifford was the youngest of 15 children, Mildred the youngest of eight.
He bought a farm in Clark County, S.D., in 1949. In 1962, the couple moved to Moorhead.
Clifford worked in maintenance at Concordia. He once built a batting cage for the baseball team that someone told him rivaled the cage of the Minnesota Twins, he said. Mildred cleaned Park Region Hall, a Concordia residence hall, and received a plaque for 25 years' service.
"The girls loved her," Clifford said.
They stayed in their home until 2010, when Mildred broke her hip, said their son-in-law Wallace Fegert of Battle Lake, Minn.
"They were very loving," Fegert said Thursday. "They thought a lot of each other. They probably never missed church. God has been in their life ever since day one. They were a wonderful couple."
Fegert said Mildred would ask his wife, her daughter Joan, if she was making him behave.
Clifford said when he and Mildred got married, the pastor told him there were only two phrases he needed to remember and use at the right time: "Yes, dear" and "How high?"
"That worked pretty good," he said.
Another thing that helped their marriage was an agreement between Clifford and Mildred to buy only what they needed and not what they wanted. Mildred had an "uncanny knack of stretching a dollar," he said.
Clifford also described Mildred as selfless, a hard worker, good homemaker and family builder who brought up their kids with Christ in their lives.
"She's a devoted wife... and she's good-looking, too," Clifford said. "And I think she likes me, too."
"Yeah, I love you," Mildred said. "I make him behave."