John Castillo, a member of multiple sports fan clubs in Minnesota, would organize events and offer fans rides to games. Credit: Tiffany Jahangir

John Manuel Castillo met Tiffany Jahangiri’s mother in passing at his old suburban apartment building nearly 40 years ago. They were neighbors and she was five months pregnant, about to become a single mother. 

“He just instantly fell for her,” said Jahangiri, who would become Castillo’s adopted daughter. 

Castillo was there for Jahangiri’s mother throughout her pregnancy. He committed to helping her raise Jahangiri. 

“He was there when I was born and he adopted me right away,” Jahangiri said. 

Castillo died September 14 at Abbott Northwestern Hospital from COVID-19. He was 59 years old.

Sahan Journal COVID-19 Memorial Project

Here at Sahan Journal, we’ve committed to memorializing the lives of Minnesota’s new Americans who have lost their lives to COVID-19. Imagine a photo album with all their faces and names. Flipping through the pages, we’d see our family, friends—and, of course, more. 

We’ve begun creating some version of that album and have documented stories about people from the Hmong, Latino, and East African communities. We’re covering people who have disproportionately suffered through this pandemic, by speaking with people who knew and loved them.

Family and friends remember him as a selfless and generous helper. He didn’t have much, Jahangiri said, but he was always willing to step in and help others however he could.

He was also a sports fan who created the “Whacker Clapper,” a loud device that fans would bang together to make noise at local sporting events, and for which he received a patent.

Castillo and his family

Castillo was born on Dec. 26, 1960, in Weslaco, Texas to Mexican immigrant parents Emilio and Maria Castillo. The Castillos moved to the United States for more opportunities shortly before Maria gave birth to John. They settled on a farm in Texas and delivered their products to other states like Oklahoma and Minnesota. Jahangiri went back to visit the farm her father grew up on when she was young. She remembered being around a lot of pigs and chickens.

Castillo’s parents would occasionally take him along on their delivery route. After some years of traveling the route and renting out places to stay in along the way, the family moved to Blaine where they grew turnips and carrots. 

“When they first moved to Blaine there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity,” Jahangiri said. “They were the only brown family around there.” 

Because of this, Emilio worked hard to make sure Castillo and his siblings adapted, according to Jahangiri. “He wanted them to only speak English because he wanted them to fit in,” Jahangiri said. “He would actually get really upset with them if they spoke Spanish.” 

Castillo and his siblings started high school in Blaine, where he played on the football team. After graduating, he enlisted in the Army. 

“Up in Blaine there were not a whole lot of opportunities for Mexican people—or so they felt, at least,” Jahangiri said. “That’s why my dad enlisted in the Army, because he felt like he didn’t have as many opportunities.”

Castillo was stationed in Germany as a hand grenade marksman, where he made friends from all over the United States, according to Jahangiri. After returning, he enrolled in technical college, graduated, and became a mechanic. Castillo ended up working as a quality technician for heart devices at Abbott Laboratories for more than 15 years. 

“He liked his coworkers,” Jahangiri said. “After he passed, a lot of them reached out to me and said he was amazing and helpful to everyone. They really thought of him as family.”

Castillo was a strict but loving father—the type to spend all day outside with his children playing catch. They all played different sports, and Castillo went to almost every game.

“He definitely instilled into us three kids a lot of strength, determination, and strong will,” Jahangiri said. “You don’t give up.”

The day after Jahangiri turned 30 she had a heart attack. She was hospitalized in the intensive care unit for five days, but Castillo wouldn’t leave her side.

“He slept in a straight-up wood chair that was probably the most uncomfortable thing ever—but he was always right there next to me,” she said. “He gave everything he could and never expected anything in return.”

Minnesota sports fans lose “Sir Whacker Clapper”

When Castillo wasn’t at work or taking care of his family, he was watching sports. He was a superfan known throughout the Twin Cities as “Sir Whacker Clapper” because of the cheering device he invented. He got the idea for the device in 1992 from watching his children play in a swimming pool with pool noodles.

“We would smack each other around with them and hit them together,” Jahangiri said. “They were super loud. From that he got the idea of making two square, foam clappers that you would clap together for a cheering device.”

Castillo loved and watched all Minnesota sports, but he especially favored the Vikings and the Timberwolves. He was an active part of fan clubs like the Viking World Order and the TWolves Army, according to fellow superfan Scott Asplund. 

“He was so good about being there,” Asplund said. “He had a very positive spirit and was there to cheer for the team.”

Castillo helped Asplund and other fan club organizers prepare for game day events and fundraisers. He drove a large van, and offered fans rides to and from sporting events, according to Asplund. 

“John would do whatever it took, and he would work hard,” he said. “He led by example.”

‘The amount of people he knew is so much more extensive than any of us realized.

Castillo tested positive for COVID-19 on August 17 and was admitted to the hospital nine days later. He had stage three kidney failure, was diabetic, and previously had a heart attack. According to Jahangiri, he was hesitant to go to the hospital.

“My dad doesn’t like to worry people,” she said. “Even if he was concerned, he didn’t really let it on.”

Once he arrived, the doctor told him his oxygen was extremely low, and he was intubated immediately. He told Castillo, “You should have come in sooner. This is killing you.”

“My dad’s last words were, ‘Tell me about it’,” Jahangiri said. “He was kind of sarcastic like that.”

Jahangiri said she received condolences and support from family, friends, and many people in the sports industry after Castillo passed. He is remembered as a good conversationalist and a positive influence on everyone around him. 

“My brothers and I had no idea how much of an impact he had on so many people in the community itself,” Jahangiri said. “The amount of people he knew is so much more extensive than any of us realized. And not a single person had anything bad to say.” 

Castillo is survived by his mother, Maria; sisters Maria, Mary, Andrea, Sarah, Elizabeth, and Suzanne; children, Tiffany, Jonathan, and Trent; his partner, Denise; grandchildren Alyssa, Roman, Roya, Kaiden, Isabelle, Elliana, and Thaddeus; as well as his nieces and nephews.

Here’s how you can contribute

We’ve started finding their stories, but we have a long way to go to memorialize Minnesotans from immigrant communities. We’ve expanded this project to include community contributions. If you’ve lost a family member, a friend, or a coworker to the coronavirus, we can honor them with your help.

1. By filling out the form below, your responses will provide us with the information to write an obituary about your loved one.

2. If you share your contact information at the end of the form, a reporter may reach out to learn more about the story you’ve shared. They will also ask for a photo. This step is entirely voluntary: It’s there to help us find out more for the story. 

3. Our reporters will then catalog these stories on Sahan Journal’s website, where readers can remember those who lost their lives to COVID-19, while also learning about what made their lives special.

Emily Pofahl is a senior at the University of Minnesota majoring in journalism and theatre arts.