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Ailing St. Paul photojournalist tells his story from behind the camera

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Ailing St. Paul photojournalist tells his story from behind the camera

As usual, Bill Alkofer was behind his camera to capture the moment.

It was in this moment, though, that the photojournalist became the subject.

“I know the exact second when my disease manifested itself,” Alkofer says. “It was at 6:53 p.m. and 41 seconds on October 19th, 2018. I know the time because I was taking a picture at a high school football game.

“I tried to lift the camera over my head — and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t lift up the camera.”

This moment eventually led to a diagnosis: A variation of ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

There is currently no cure for the progressive condition that steals a person’s ability to move, talk, swallow and — eventually — to breathe. It typically comes with a life expectancy of two to five years.

“As soon as the neurologist said, ‘ALS is on the table,’ it hit me like a ton of bricks,” Alkofer said. “I sat in the parking lot for an hour. … That night, I dreamed of my dad.”

His dad passed away of a similar condition. Could there be a connection?

After the diagnosis, Alkofer reacted like many us do when the news is bad and we need support: He came home.

‘IT’S A MINNESOTA THING’

Alkofer, who most recently worked for the Orange County Register in California, says that he “hails from the hinterlands of North Dakota,” but he also called St. Paul home for many years, some of them as a photographer for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. And it is here — St. Paul — where he has come home.

“This is where my support system is,” he says.

Friends and fellow photojournalists Richard Marshall, left, and Scott Cohen, both of St. Paul, help set up Bill Alkofer’s new bed as he moves into his apartment at an assisted-living facility in St. Paul in June 2021. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

The 59-year-old has moved into an assisted-living facility in Highland Park. But, in addition to the caregivers and his family and friends, his support system of almost 20 people also includes people carrying cameras: his fellow photojournalists. They go back — way back. Back when pictures were processed not on computers, but in darkrooms.

“My friends here are still very loyal, with huge hearts,” he says. “It’s a Minnesota thing.”

Maybe it’s a “Bill thing,” too: Alkofer’s community of friends, family and colleagues both past and present — from California to Minnesota — came together for him after his diagnosis, raising more than $25,000 to help get him back to Minnesota, and to pay for a hotel while he waited for a spot to open up in assisted living.

And now his friends are preparing another GoFundMe — to raise money for the living wake Alkofer wants to host, as well as for his funeral.

‘THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PHOTO OF YOUR LIFE’

At the Pioneer Press, Alkofer captured life in Minnesota — and sometimes in North Dakota, too — for almost a decade.

Perhaps his most iconic image is from the Grand Forks flood of 1997.

After the Red River burst through the dikes and flooded the border towns of Grand Forks, N.D., and East Grand Forks, Minn., on April 19, 1997, a fire began burning in downtown Grand Forks.

Later that morning, Alkofer waded into the floodwaters to photograph two firefighters as they stood hip deep in the water, trying to hook up a hose to a fire hydrant — an unsuccessful effort to extinguish the blaze that eventually consumed 11 buildings.

“I wish I could go back,” he says, “and whisper to 1997 Bill, ‘This is the most important photo of your life.’ ”

‘TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE’

In between seeing patients on a recent morning, Dr. Namita Goyal remembers one of her former patients: Bill Alkofer.

“He is very tenacious,” she recalls. “He is very charming.”

He was a good advocate for himself, she recalls, wanting all other possibilities to be ruled out before they reached what was the ultimate diagnosis of ALS.

Goyal is used to seeing the cruelties of this progressive neurodegenerative disease that was first identified in 1869; she is a neurologist at the ALS & Neuromuscular Center at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center in Orange County.

“Every one of my patients have stories that are just as heartbreaking as Bill’s,” she says.

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