Longtime American Legion Department of Utah National Executive Committeeman William Christoffersen was the guest of honor March 15 at a ceremony at the Salt Lake City Veterans Home. But thanks to some nice stealth work by friends and family, Christoffersen didn't know he was the one being celebrated until the party began.
The state's first veterans home – adjacent to the George E. Wahlen Veterans Affairs Medical Center – was renamed the William E. Christoffersen Salt Lake Veterans Home in honor of one of the men responsible for the home opening more than 14 years ago. Christoffersen – who was surrounded by American Legion National Commander James E. Koutz, Department of Utah Legionnaires, and his wife, Elaine, and eight of their nine children – had no idea the facility was being renamed for him.
"I was flabbergasted," Christoffersen said. "I thought we were there for a regular meeting. Then I saw some of my children in the parking lot, and they told me they were there for a meeting. I went in to the meeting, and (Department Adjutant) Greg Rowley and (Utah Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director) Terry Schow both were in there. They asked me to come up and sit by Terry. I sat down, then saw my kids come into the room, and then they told me what they were going to do. It was the biggest surprise of my life."
Elaine said she knew about the ceremony "about three weeks out" but that there was never a chance she was going to spill the news with her husband. "There was no way we were going to tell him," she said. "We wanted it to be a surprise. I was so taken by the honor they were giving him, and I wanted to make sure he didn't know until the last minute. He didn't have a clue this was going to happen, and that's the way we wanted it."
Christoffersen is well known as a longtime advocate for veterans in his home state. He was one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Utah Veterans Memorial Park, which was built in Bluffdale, Utah, decades ago.
Christoffersen said getting a veterans home built was a project that spanned from his tenure as department commander in 1959 through his years as National Executive Committeeman and included many ups and downs.
"This was an uphill battle for us, but we got it done," he said. "It takes all of us to make something like this happen. I just tried to get people to join in and help. It wasn't up to one person. It was up to everyone."