John Howard Esbjornson


age 99, died on March 28, 2021 in Edina, MN, with his loving children close by.

He was born in Duluth, MN to Per and Victoria (Swenson) Esbjornson. When John was five his mother died and he and his brother Robert lived with relatives and friends while his father worked to support them. They moved often until Per found Anna Dahlin to care for them on her farm in Wright, MN. She lovingly providing the stability they needed. Anna and Per later married and John spent the remainder of his childhood there, graduating from Cromwell High School in 1940.  He credited his experiences on the farm for fundamentally shaping his life.

John served in the US Navy in Panama, and Eastern and Southern United States from 1942-1945. He attended Gustavus Adolphus College, graduating in 1950 with a B.A. in Speech. It was at Gustavus that he met Carol Ostgaard who would become his wife of 65 years. John worked at KSUM Radio in Fairmont and taught English in Ogilvie and Lamberton before he and Carol settled in Willmar, MN in 1956.

John taught Speech, Theater and English at the Willmar Senior High School until his retirement in 1986. His teaching tenure was distinguished as a director of classic and modern plays such as The Skin of Our Teeth, Antigone, and Wait Until Dark as well as musicals including Show Boat, The Sound of Music, and The Music Man. In 1969 he took a sabbatical leave to earn an M.F.A. in Theatre Arts from Mankato State University, culminating in a production of The Firebugs. Talented high school thespians were honored by the annual “Esby Awards” and many students stayed in touch long after they had graduated.

John marked his start as a community theater director with the 1958 Centennial Pageant for Kandiyohi County, a production involving live horses and lavish spectacle. In 1964, John worked with other community leaders to develop The Barn Theatre, where he directed and performed in a myriad of plays and served as an advisor and volunteer for over 30 years. Between Willmar Senior High School and The Barn Theatre, John directed over 100 productions.

For many years, John’s resonant voice was heard as an announcer at KWLM Radio in Willmar. He also volunteered at Bethel Lutheran Church, and enjoyed golfing, gardening, home building projects, and travel. He was a devoted husband and father, and loved for his intellectual curiosity, creativity, sense of humor, and kindness.

Preceded in death by his parents, stepmother Anna (Dahlin) Esbjornson, wife, Carol, brother Robert, sister-in-law Ruth, and niece Ruth Louise. He is survived by son David (Elizabeth Clancy), grandson Aidan, daughters Mary, Karen, and Susan (Todd Menton) nephew Carl (Rilla), and grandnieces Rachel and Rebekka (Jeff Karlson).

A Memorial Service will be held May 22nd at 1:30 pm at Bethel Lutheran Church, 411 Becker Ave SW, Willmar, MN (320) 235-5450. The service will also be live-streamed and available for viewing at In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that memorials may be given to The Barn Theatre, Gustavus Adolphus College, Bethel Lutheran Church, or the Guthrie Theatre.

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