I have written several articles for The Hub, and a lot of them have been on the local musicians and bands here in Wichita Falls. But this one is a bit different. This one is about a fan. Arguably the biggest fan and supporter of our local musicians, bands, artists, and venues. His name was Donald Larson. I called him ‘The Don’ because I regarded him as the godfather of all fans.
Don passed away on Tuesday, April 10, ironically called Terrible Tuesday by the locals. A sad day indeed for the local musical community. On Thursday I had the opportunity to talk with two of his sisters, Sue Graf and Becky From from Wisconsin, and his daughter Michelle Larson and her partner Nick Webber from Denton, about Don. They gave me a little insight into his life.
Don was born in Ashland, Wisconsin, near Lake Superior, the oldest of nine children. As a toddler he liked to roam and explore. When his mother would be hanging clothes on the line she would have to tie him to a tree so he wouldn’t wander off, but even then, he would sit on the ground and pick up ants and eat them. And when he was older he was in an archery league with his brother in Wisconsin.
He grew up in Wisconsin and spent the last two years of high school in Florida where his mother had moved. After graduating he joined the Army for four years. He spent two of those years in Germany. He loved Germany, the food, the culture, the language. And when he got out of the Army he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee where he was studying for a chemistry degree. He was one semester away from graduating when he chose to drop school to manage a Super America gas station. According to Sue, he figured he was working full time, schooling full time, and partying full time, and he had to let one of those activities to go. He also sold shoes door-to-door.
He was a protective big brother and was always there when they needed him. His sister Becky, Don’s youngest sibling by 17 years told me of the one big story she has of Don rescuing her Dolly. She had left it at the park one day, and at bedtime she couldn’t sleep without it. She cried and cried, and Don went out in the dark to the park and found it for her. He was her hero.
Don was also a strong advocate of festive activities. That’s just another way of saying that he liked to party. Michelle shared with me one of his favorite party stories where Don and four friends drove from Wisconsin to Mardi Gras one year. They had been there a time, and at one point the five of them were lying around their hotel room trying to figure out what day of the week it was. All five guessed a different day, yet all of them were wrong.
He eventually ended up here in Wichita Falls where his wife’s family lived. Michelle is his only biological daughter, and her parents divorced when she was very young, but she told me that he has two step daughters that he loved as if they were his own. And as a testament to his character and strong feelings for family bond, he and her mother remained friends, sometimes even spending Christmas Eves at her mom’s house for Michelle.
He continued his education at Midwestern State University obtaining a degree in accounting, and for the last 15 years he worked for Tranter Inc., the heat exchange company. He started out as an accountant, but ended up a jack of all trades there, including doing engineering work for them. He didn’t have an engineering degree, but according to Sue he had the mind for it. “He was the smartest man I know. He had a photographic memory and his acuity for math was off the charts. You wouldn’t ever want to play a card game or a board game with him, especially Trivial Pursuit, unless he was on your team,” she said.
Sue admits trying to talk Don into moving back to Wisconsin numerous times. She would ask him to grab Michelle and move back since she was the only family he had in Texas. It wasn’t until Don’s passing that she realized the extent of his family that he had here. The Facebook posts that she saw were overwhelming. She and Becky said that they have tried to read each and every one, but had trouble keeping up. Sue reminded Michelle of the saying that on a headstone you will find a date of birth, a date of death, and a dash in the middle. How do you spend your dash? By looking at all the stories and outpouring of sentiment on the Facebook posts, she knew how Don spent his dash. “Obviously his death has been insanely difficult, but it has also been uplifting and encouraging to see his impact on his community and how much joy he brought to everyone around him,” said Sue. Michelle says,” When Nick and I would come up for a visit and dad would take us out to a restaurant or a bar, he would introduce us to the owner, his favorite bartender, friends that were there, even the maintenance man. And when we would be sitting at a table everyone that walked by would say, ’Hi Don.’” And when it was time to pay the bill Don would insist on seeing a smile from the cashier or waitress before he paid. “He always got the smile,” Michelle said.
“He was a hell of a character and an interesting guy,” says Nick. “We knew he had a lot of friends, but didn’t realize to what extent until this week. It has been interesting to see people coming out of the woodwork reaching out, from Wichita Falls to hockey players in Canada.”
Family was undoubtedly the thing that Don held the most highly, cherishing the annual family reunions in Milwaukee, or ‘Summerfest’ as they call it. It is held on the third Saturday in July, but this year it will be missing him.
If I should guess, music was his second love. His taste in music was never corralled by any one genre. Sue tells me that he had collected music in every form- reel to reel, vinyl, 8-track, cassette, and CD. His collection is overwhelmingly impressive. And he loved the live shows. I don’t think that there is a single local band (and there are many) that Don hasn’t supported and seen perform. He would make his rounds on the weekends to try and see as many acts as he could. Sometimes I would just run into him a couple or three times a night in different venues. All the bands and all the players around here loved seeing him in front of the stage with a beer in one hand and the horns up in the other, and that big old smile he had shining like a beacon in the night.
On April 11 there was a memorial gathering at Stick’s Place, Don’s favorite place, to honor the memory of our local music scene’s single biggest supporter. Around 200 people were in attendance. Musicians, waitresses, co-workers, and friends got up and shared some personal experiences that they had with Don. And the stories and memories of him that I have seen on Facebook were so numerous that it would take a few books to tell them all.
Don was a very giving person. If he found out you needed help he was there in any way he could be. He was also an organ donor. Two days after his death his liver was living inside someone else. He had saved another person’s life. The Critical Care Unit at United Regional Hospital will soon have his name and photograph on their Wall Of Heroes. They hold an annual ceremony honoring heroes and donors. And Michelle would like to mention the Southwest Transplant Association who she says was phenomenally helpful with the transition.
Erica and Brandon Mundt, along with David Falnes, have spearheaded a festival coming up on October 5th, 6th, and 7th to honor the memory of our top supporter of live local music. It is called LarsonFest, and in the giving spirit that Don has continuously demonstrated it will be a benefit supporting CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) that represents children caught up in tough family situations. It will be held at Stick’s Place, and at the time of this writing more than 40 bands and acts have signed up to perform.
It will be awfully strange around here not seeing Don in the audience, but his legacy will live on for a long, long time. Oh, and by the way, that was his real hair.