After an absence of more than eight years, former Channel 2 anchor Ernie Bjorkman is returning to the station, where he'll take over as co-host of the morning program Daybreak from Tom Green, who announced that he was stepping away from the gig earlier this year. And the path Bjorkman has taken to get back to the CW affiliate is flat-out bizarre, encompassing gigs as a veterinary technician, a member of the Peace Corps who served in Ethiopia, and a male model, among other things.
"I was living on a houseboat in St. Augustine, Florida, my home town, and was down in the Keys fishing with my friends when I suddenly got the call wondering if I would be interested in coming back," Bjorkman recalls. "And I said, 'You've got to be kidding.'"
Many viewers will have a similar reaction upon learning how Bjorkman filled much of the past decade.
In late 2008, as we reported at the time, Channel 2 and Fox31 merged their news operations, and Bjorkman wound up on the outside looking in. During an interview with Westword shortly after being handed his walking papers, Bjorkman, then 57, confessed that he had wanted to continue anchoring until he reached his sixtieth birthday. As such, his departure came "two or three years earlier than I expected."
Nevertheless, he'd already started preparing for life after TV by enrolling in a veterinary-technician program at the Community College of Denver. Prior to his ouster, he had interned at clinics and animal hospitals all over the metro area, regularly freaking out customers simply by his presence. When he walked into the lobby of a vet clinic, he said, most people thought he was "doing an undercover story."
The vet-tech transition didn't stay quiet for long. "I got more national attention after I got laid off," Bjorkman points out. "I was on Oprah, on Ellen, on CNN, on the front page of the New York Times . I kind of became the poster child for older newscasters who were getting laid off. It was happening a lot back then." Nevertheless, he stresses, "I wasn't angry, I wasn't bitter" about the pink-slipping. "It was just business."
Bjorkman was serious about his vet-tech dreams. He spent two years working in the field and says he loved every minute caring for animals. But there was one problem. "It doesn't pay a lot," he points out. "I lost a house to foreclosure, and I lost a marriage."
Something good came out of the experience, though. While serving as a vet tech in the small Colorado town of Salida, Bjorkman fell in love with his now-wife and fellow journalist Sue Bjorkman.
The two were already an item when he got a call from a representative of ClearChoice, a company that specializes in dental implants. The firm was looking for someone to serve as the face of the company at seminars across the country, as well as in infomercials, and Bjorkman fit the bill. "It entailed traveling, and I love travel," he points. "And also, it paid a lot more money."
After a year of working for ClearChoice, Bjorkman was ready for a new adventure — so he and Sue signed up to join the Peace Corps. But they didn't immediately receive an assignment. "It takes a year or so to apply and go through the process," he says. "So while that was happening, I took a job selling lift tickets at Keystone. People would come up to buy tickets and go, 'Weren't you on the news?' And I'd say, 'I used to be.'"
A couple of months later, Ernie and Sue learned that they'd be heading to Africa. "We were sent to Ethiopia and taught women how to build perma-gardens, where they could capture rain off rooftops and use it to grow food," he reveals. "They could grow enough to feed their families and have some left over to sell, so they became self-sufficient."
The gig was hardly a pleasure cruise. "The bathroom was a hole in the ground, and hyenas would come out at night and try to eat you," he allows. But the couple found the experience deeply satisfying and were planning to complete their two-year commitment when concerns arose "about the Ethiopian government finding out we were journalists and thinking we were spies," he continues. "We tried laying low, but they were arresting Ethiopian journalists then, and the Peace Corps was getting worried."
For that reason, the Bjorkmans left Ethiopia after eight months and headed to a series of exotic locations: "We went to Mongolia; we slept on the sand dunes in the Gobi Desert; we went to Beijing, China; we traveled in Europe."
At the end of this period, Ernie and Sue returned to the U.S. with a goal of turning a daydream they'd had in Ethiopia into a reality. "We had fantasized about living on a houseboat," he says. "So we went to St. Augustine, found an old houseboat on Craigslist, redid it and lived there for two years."
Along the way, Bjorkman added to his memorable résumé. "I did a part-time thing at a golf course, and we also became senior models after getting hooked up with a modeling community in Jacksonville. We were the hit of the 55-plus group."
But then, last November, Bjorkman received the aforementioned call about CW2 from Fox31's Dan Daru, acting as an intermediary for station management; he and Bjorkman had kept in touch since 2008.
The offer to return and take over for Green "was out of the blue," he acknowledges. "But Sue and I talked about it, and we thought, how many times in this life do you get a chance to recoup what you lost eight years ago?"
Green is expected to continue at the Daybreak helm through May, with Bjorkman stepping in for him the following month. But his official start date at the station is March 27. He expects that he'll report for various newscasts, including Daybreak, in the interim, and perhaps fill in for folks when needed before taking on the early shift full-time.
"That's going to be a big eye-opener for me, having to get to work at 3:30 in the morning," he says. "But I'm sure I'll get used to it. And I'm looking forward to being a little more laid-back than I was during evening newscasts," as well as working with Daybreak-mates Natalie Tysdal, Chris Tomer, Sam Boik and Chris Parente, the program's wild card.
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"I love him," Bjorkman enthuses about Parente. "I'm looking at him as one of the great personalities who's going to drive our product. I think we'll have a lot of laughs together."
In the meantime, Bjorkman is still processing the many career twists and turns that ended with him back in Denver. "At first I was dumbfounded," he says. "But then I was elated, flattered and grateful for a second chance."
And if things don't work out, he can always get a job as a vet tech, or go back to the Peace Corps, or return to modeling, or....