Larry D. Friesen, who always enjoyed a good laugh, successfully eluded his decade-long nemesis, frontal temporal dementia (FTD), on August 8, 2020. FTD may have imprisoned his body and his mind, but his spirit managed to escape and lives on – he got the last laugh, after all. Some will remember him for donning a man-sized Raggedy Ann costume on Halloween to go trick-or-treating with his daughter (and drawing a large crowd). Others will recall him pulling on lederhosen to perform a piano duet with his brother Duane. Those closest to him know he never missed a chance to show off or ham it up. Younger brothers have to find their niche, somehow.
Larry was the second son of Waldo H. Friesen and Linda (Zielke) Friesen, born on November 20, 1944, in American Falls, Idaho. The family braved the Idaho winters, harvested potatoes in fall with the extended family, raised crops, milked cows in any kind of weather, and went camping in the mountains when farming allowed. Larry was the family mechanic, although his first experiment with his electric drill shredded his pants and left a lasting leg impression. His idyllic, if isolated, childhood was full of critters, 4H cows, church, chores, and cousins. He fulfilled the family goal of education by graduating from Bethel College, earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver, and completing his doctorate in social work from Columbia University, New York City.
In Denver he met Donna, a fellow social work student who initially thought he was just a show-off. She changed her mind. In 1969 they were married and began their 50-year journey together.
Coming of age in the 1960s, Larry’s life was influenced by the social justice movements of the time, much like the climate we find ourselves in today. A family tragedy sparked his interest in mental health, and his early career reflected that, including working in community mental health, emergency services, and children’s programs in Colorado, Maine, and Kansas. As a professor of social work at Bethel College, his greatest satisfaction was helping prepare students for the challenges they would face in life and work and expand their knowledge of diverse people and cultures. He brought his experiences of the 1960s to the classroom, teaching students to advocate for those in need and to always (constructively) question authority. Larry’s legacy will live on in the many students he mentored over the years. Each has her or his favorite “Larry story.”
In 1980, Larry became a devoted father to a lucky daughter, Katy. As a parent, he offered un-ending support, respect, kindness, humor, and adventure.
In the more than 40 years he lived in Harvey County, he supported numerous community organizations, either by serving on boards, involving his students in research, or just sharing his wisdom. He served for eight years on the USD #373 School Board (1992-2000), where he advocated for students and families, particularly those with challenges, as well as all educators. He was also instrumental in expanding the hiring of school social workers.
Alongside his professional life, Larry was always fixing or building something. He built furniture, turned bowls on his lathe, and drilled wells with a home-built rig in the back yards of friends and family. He still planted potatoes every spring.
For his family, favorite memories are of epic summer road trips and camping adventures. Grand Teton National Park held a special place in Larry’s heart. He liked to tell the story of climbing to the top of a haystack on the farm in Idaho on a clear day and being able to see the tops of the Tetons. As a boy, he often spent family vacations there, camping, fishing, hiking, and enjoying each other’s company. He passed that love of the West on to Donna and Katy. Nothing energized Larry more than seeking out the perfect campsite (very early in the morning), setting up camp, firing up the Coleman stove, and experiencing nature.
Last October, the family celebrated Donna and Larry’s 50th anniversary, Larry’s 75th birthday, and Katy’s marriage to Christian, knowing that the future of Larry’s journey was unknown. He was surrounded by close friends and family, including his new Ecuadorian family. Larry and his grandson Matias quickly became fond of each other.
Larry lives on in the hearts of his wife Donna June, of Hesston, and his daughter Katy June-Friesen and son-in-law Christian Samaniego, of Hyattsville, Md. He will be greatly missed by his brother, Duane K. Friesen and sister-in-law Elizabeth (Voth) Friesen of North Newton, as well as his aunt, Laura Friesen of North Newton. Brothers-in-law Warren L. Prell (Deborah) of Barrington, R.I., and George F. Prell (Linda) of Indianapolis, Ind., will also miss his sense of humor and adventure, as will his nieces and nephews: Anne Friesen Birky (Brett) of Denver; Sarah Friesen Guhr (Brad) of Newton; Tyler Prell (Christy) of Washington, D.C.; Tamara Piasecki (Bill) of Upton, Mass.; Jake Prell, Michigan; Jessica Gockley of St. Augustine, Fla.; and Hannah Miller (Ryan) of Indianapolis, Ind. His great nieces and nephews are Henry Guhr and Ben Guhr, Newton; Elizabeth “Lizzie” Birky and Katie Rose Birky, Denver; Aviendha Prell, Michigan; Luke, Sophia, and Bella Gockley, St. Augustine, Fla.; Daley Prell, Washington, D.C.; and Karis, Colby, and Griffin Piasecki of Upton, Mass. He is also survived by 14 first cousins, who will miss him at the next Friesen reunion.
Due to Covid-19, a celebration of Larry’s life will take place sometime in 2021. His former students are encouraged to attend and share their memories and “Larry stories.” In the meantime, memorials may be sent to the Bethel College Department of Social Work (online or contact the development office), Good Shepherd Hospice, and Mennonite Central Committee.
Finally, share your diagnoses and relinquish a little privacy; you’ll receive more support that way. Brain diseases are especially difficult to navigate, and more common than you might think. Let’s work together to eliminate the stigma associated with dementias.