To the Editor,

It was a sunny, winter day in the mid-1960s at the Channing outdoor hockey rink in Fergus Falls. Now, more than a half century later, his impression remains indelible. I stood nervously in tattered leather hockey skates on wobbly legs, struggling to stay upright. It was my first day of hockey practice. The team had already held a few practices and the other boys wore bright yellow jerseys and scurried around the rink like it was second-nature. I stood awkwardly in an old, brown corduroy coat; quite unbecoming for a hockey player. What was I doing here? 

And then it happened. The larger-than-life coach, Cal Larson, skated up to me with his trademark, beaming smile and welcomed me to the team. He fitted a leather helmet over my stocking hat, put his hand on my shoulder, and introduced me as “Danny” to the other boys. Most parents hope there will be a time in every kid’s life when a mentor comes alongside to model the virtues of a greater good. Cal Larson was one of those men.

Over the next few years, I would enjoy playing Squirt and Bantam hockey with many boyhood friends in Fergus Falls. My mom, Laurel, was appreciative of Cal’s inclusive gesture to me. She paid it forward, and found a pair of used black figure skates for my friend Mark Ferber, a tall lanky boy who joined our hockey ranks, and eventually became one of the Otters most storied goaltenders.

After my sixth-grade year, our family relocated to rural Battle Lake, and my hockey days would be relegated to simple pickup games with neighbor kids on the lake, and I wouldn’t see Cal Larson again, except for his face on campaign flyers. 

Over the next 50 years, our lives would not intersect, although Cal’s kindness, respect, and dignity had been impressed on me years prior. As life and career took me out of the area, Cal continued to serve his constituents in Otter Tail County and was an encourager to other men. This week, as my 94-year-old mom reminisced about Cal’s recent passing, she fondly described him as one of her all-time favorites. To her, Cal was a real American patriot.  She told me of the time Cal encouraged Bud Nornes to consider becoming a State Representative; he was a popular radio announcer at KBRF at that time. Representative Nornes went on to become one of the most effective, long-standing voices for our area in the Minnesota legislature, while Cal did the same as his colleague in the Senate. I’ve learned that among the many things Cal and Bud accomplished together, establishing and supporting Glendalough State Park was one of their fondest mutual pursuits. That would eventually matter to me years later.

In his brief, yet remarkable commencement address at Stanford University in 2005, the late Steve Jobs insisted that leaders should pursue things in the present with courage and faith; believing they will be rationally connected in the future. He contends we cannot humanly “connect all the dots” in our future. Rather, only by looking back can we see how the seemingly incidental things – perhaps even the mundane – were connected with meaning to important things in our life journey. His examples were riveting. And so it would be with Cal Larson, Glendalough, and me. 

Lisa and I moved back to area as I started a biotech company in Alexandria. In 2008, our rural community of Battle Lake was suffering economic despair, school enrollment decline, and Glendalough State Park was on the brink of losing resources. The community developed an ambitious vision to revitalize the town and school, which included a 12-mile bike trail and a new visitor center in the park. Even with all our good intention, volunteer effort, local fundraising, and progress on many fronts, the Minnesota DNR could not invest its limited budget on a trail loop in our low-profile park. The park loop and trail center were central to our lofty plan; our only viable path would be to secure state bonding. The legislative process appeared ambiguous and arduous, yet there was resolve to take the first step.

And then, an unexpected call came from Cal Larson. He was now 80 years old, and had retired as a Senator, yet he expressed the same kindness and encouragement I had heard decades prior at the Channing hockey rink. He wanted an update on life and to talk about the Glendalough Trail bonding. Cal told me about his long-standing love and legislative work for Glendalough in the 90s and offered to help in any way possible. He had maintained contact with many legislators, state officials, and the Governor. Cal gave me advice about how to work the process in St. Paul, the Senate Finance Committee, and provide Senate testimony. 

Steve Jobs was right! I could not have anticipated how this timely, experienced resource would emerge from the hockey rink encounter in Fergus Falls 50 years prior. However, looking back it was all so connected, so rational, and so relevant. Eventually, with the help of Nornes, Skogen, Ingebrigtsen, and Rasmussen, we would be successful over 12 years to secure three bonds of $350,000, $750,000, and $900,000 for our park projects to augment millions more in philanthropy and various grants for other projects in Battle Lake. 

There have been many quiet stewards contributing to the renewed vitality of Battle Lake and Glendalough State Park over the years, but it’s hard to imagine how any of it would have been possible without connecting many dots, projects, and people back to Cal Larson. Many structures around Otter Tail County bear evidence to Cal’s public service over the years, however I might contend those impressive things are indifferent in light of the eternal virtues he imparted to other people during his life. 

I read Cal’s obituary with admiration – and at times chuckled – as his family described his social inclinations above academic rigor in college. He was people first. The description of Cal as a man who applied “no labels” really hit home. Truly, that was my experience with Cal Larson. It didn’t seem natural for him to look at a person through the lens of a political party, denomination, class, or any other fractional identity. His first-take seemed to regard each person with authentic kindness and dignity.

Cal may not have labeled people, but he deserves one in my book. To me, he carried the mark of a “virtuous man guided by the love of God’s own heart”. On my trail outings in Glendalough, there will be a whisper amid the sounds of nature, “Thank you Lord for Cal Larson. You are glorified here today by the beautiful virtues he lived while among us.”

Dan Malmstrom,

Battle Lake