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Obituary for June Kjome

Our June was born in Decorah, Iowa on December 12, 1920, to James and Jennie (Wennes) Kjome. In 1925 the family moved to Austin, Minnesota. June received her education in the public schools and graduated from Austin High School in 1938. She continued her education with a year at the Junior College in Albert Lea before moving to Minneapolis where her aunt and uncle, Thilda and Hagbart Egertson had found her a job in an “old folks home.”

June’s life-long dream was to become a nurse and after 15 months working at the rest home she entered the University of Minnesota nursing education program in 1940, graduating in 1943. June had already decided she was going overseas to be a missionary. In the midst of WWII she worked at the Family Nursing Service in St. Paul while preparing at Lutheran Bible Institute for missionary work. Eventually she got her placement in Zululand in South Africa and in 1945, just after VE Day, she sailed from New York for England and then on to South Africa.

June’s first placement was in a small rural hospital at Luwamba where she would have to learn the Zulu language and customs before being sent out alone to mobile clinics. This small mission hospital was without a mission doctor so the nurses were on their own except when a visiting doctor or surgeon occasionally came. Millicent Haugebak whom June had first met while she was studying at the U. of M. and now met again at Luwamba as she was “learning the ropes” of nursing in rural South Africa, would become her best friend. Of Millicent June said, “my special thanks to Millicent Haugebak, who has been so much a part of the story from the beginning and who always thought I could do anything she put her mind to.” This vote of confidence sustained June in those first months. In addition to all the things these two nurses had to do to keep the hospital and girls residence functioning, they also had to keep the livestock well, so they became the local veterinarians.

June was sent to Johannesburg for a 6 month course in midwifery then returned to Zululand to work in the Hlabisa mission hospital. In addition to her nursing responsibilities she taught nursing and midwifery to Zulu and other African women.

During her first furlough that began late in the fall of 1952 she returned to the US and spent much of her time traveling around the US visiting Lutheran congregations to give talks about the mission field, and in particular, the Zulu mission. Returning to South Africa in the spring of 1954 she found that there were many improvements in the facilities of the mission hospitals, including running water and electricity.

Seven years later she had her second furlough. Returning to the US in the summer of 1960 she was encouraged to begin writing a book about her experiences as a missionary nurse in South Africa and about the mission field. She spent most of her furlough working on her book. The result was the publication of “Back of Beyond”, in 1962 (Augsburg Publishing Co.).

Back in South Africa June found her voice. She saw injustice toward black people through apartheid. The experience, especially the low status of black women in that society, made her an activist and a feminist. After 19 years with the Lutheran Mission in Zululand June decided to leave. She said, “I left Africa for the fact that it was very difficult to live in that situation and not speak out... To me, silence is the same as assent.”

In 1964 June returned to the US. After doing post-graduate work at the University of Wisconsin, Madison June moved to La Crosse. For the next 20 years she was a pediatric nurse and then as head of education at Gundersen Lutheran Medical Center. In her retirement she continued using her voice for peace and justice. She actively opposed apartheid in South Africa. In 1994 June went to South African and Namibia to help celebrate the end of apartheid. She was active in helping to establish programs that fight hunger locally and throughout the world. She worked in the community to end domestic violence against women and children and worked locally and internationally to end discrimination against all people, including gays and lesbians. Among the organizations she has worked with in her retirement years: YWCA, New Horizons, Habitat for Humanity, League of Women Voters, Coulee Region Transitional Housing, Interfaith Justice and Peace Group, Women in Black, and PFLAG.

June received numerous community awards and honors. One of the more tangible awards was the naming of June Kjome Place, a transitional housing project for women and children in Houston County, Minnesota.

May 6, 2007 was “June Kjome Day” in La Crosse, celebrating a lifetime of “Putting Faith into Action for Justice”.

In 2012 she received the Distinguished Alumni Award presented by Austin High School, Austin, MN. At the presentation June addressed without notes an auditorium full of high school students held spellbound by her story.

June continued to live independently in her own apartment until at the beginning of the COVID pandemic she fell in her apartment, hit her head, broke her nose and a vertebra in her neck, but managed to summoned help. After a week in Lutheran Hospital she was transferred to Benedictine Manor where they locked the door behind her. Dauntlessly she fought her way back to health, determined to make the most of her new situation. She became a favorite of the staff for her patience and good humor, undemanding and grateful. Her 100th birthday was celebrated outside her window by a joyous group of friends and representatives of the organizations to which she had given her energies over the years. The next three birthdays were celebrated with her by family and friends in the activities room at Benedictine Manor.

June often expressed wonder that she was still here, wondering if God had forgotten her. But God had His own plan for June. On the 9th of February, 2024 June received her reward. Thanks be to God.

In accordance with June's wishes, a memorial service will take place at 11:00 a.m., Saturday, May 18, 2024 at Our Saviour's Lutheran Church, 612 Division St, La Crosse, WI 54601. A visitation will be held from 10:00 a.m. until the time of service, at the church.

Thank you to all who are joining us today to celebrate June’s incredible life. June’s ashes will be laid to rest beside her parents in the Highland Lutheran Cemetery south of Spring Grove, MN sometime in June.

Online condolences and expressions of online sympathy may be offered on this website.