I wrote here a few weeks ago that you can’t really understand COVID-19 until you’ve sat at the bedside of a good friend on a ventilator. I can say now that even then I did not understand it completely until I buried that good friend this past week. Until I watched that coffin being slowly lowered into the ground, as we all tossed flowers onto it, on a cold day at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Bismarck.
COVID kills. It kills friends, and family members, young people and old, none of whom deserved to die the way they did, after long weeks of suffering. After that awful suffering, they deserved to live long and fruitful lives, in good health. Sadly, almost 2,000 North Dakotans, and numbers that will likely reach a million Americans before it is over, will not live past the hospitalization, the tubes and wires and horrible discomfort they endured in desperate attempts to come back to us from behind those blank eyes and heaving chests.
There were a lot of good friends in the room this past week as we said goodbye to Larry Dopson. A respected lawyer, his memorial service drew a “Who’s Who in North Dakota’s Legal Community” crowd. It brought a wonderful tribute/homily from Msgr. James Shea, perhaps the most respected man of the cloth in Bismarck.
It brought these fine words from a United States Senator, Kent Conrad:
“Larry Dopson was one of the finest people I have ever known. He was interesting, inquisitive and involved in every community he was part of. He was also a loving and dedicated family man. He loved Christine, Jesse and Chris with all his heart. He cared deeply about them and enjoyed their successes.
“Larry was one of the most well-read people I knew. There was almost no subject that did not interest him. From political biographies to the great outdoors, Larry delved deeply into every subject that attracted his attention.
“But Larry was much more. He thought deeply about issues and about our society and its challenges. And he tried to make things better. He was a patient listener and able to have civil discussions even with people with whom he disagreed.
“He was a respected and constructive counselor. Those who sought his advice learned to value his judgment and his care in coming to conclusions. On many occasions, I sought his professional advice and learned to rely on it.
“Many of Lucy’s and my favorite times were dinners on their patio with Christine, Larry and the boys, sharing conversations, experiences and the stories of our lives.
“Larry Dopson was a big person with real insights into human nature with all its complexity and challenges. He was a true friend, and we will miss him very much. RIP Larry. We love you.”
It brought the music of two of Bismarck-Mandan’s finest musicians, Chuck Suchy and Debi Rogers, who sang to their friend Larry with heavy hearts.
And finally, it brought memories from seven of Larry’s closest friends, members of his Canoe Trip Gang, the men he spent many days with in the wilderness over a 40-year period. You get to know someone really well on those annual four- to five-day expeditions, alone with just nature and good food, drink and companionship. Each of us wrote down some final thoughts of Larry, and his canoe-mate for most of those years, Bill Knudson, read them to us at the service. I’ll share them with you as well, right now. If you knew Larry Dopson, you’ll recognize him in these tributes and shared memories. If you didn’t, you will by the time you’re done reading.
From Mike Jacobs
“My defining memory of Larry Dopson is from a canoe trip on the Little Missouri River. I had managed to swamp a canoe, and the potatoes I’d brought to roast in the evening campfire began to float away. Of course, Larry was ahead of our canoe. He was the strongest and the boldest of us. In an instant, he was in the river recovering the potatoes, each and every one of them. Ever since, I’ve thought of Dopson as ‘St. Larry Tater Saver.’”
From Jeff Weispfenning
“We pitched our tents in a small stand of cottonwoods on the bank of the Upper Missouri in Montana with daylight remaining. Across the river stood Citadel Rock — an immense sharktooth planted on the river’s edge.
“We took two canoes across the river and made our way up the base of the Citadel. Before long the trail became more difficult, and we reached a level spot facing sheer rock which required careful selection of hand and toeholds to climb vertically. Jim and I stopped, watching in awe as Larry and Bill continued upward. Hand over hand, straight up. Below was a hundred-foot drop or more to the shallow, rocky river.
“To this day, I can see Larry pushing up with one leg as he reached for a handhold. For what seemed like an eternity, he teetered on the brink of tipping over backward. Through sheer strength and determination, he fought the pull of gravity and eternity. He made another handhold and was safe. We all saw it happen.
“Larry decided he’d had enough, and he and Bill slowly made their way back down to safety where we waited. I said, “Dang, Dopson, you scared the crap out of us. We thought we’d lost you.”
“‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he said.
“Then he cleared his throat as he often did when he was about to deliver a punchline or a zinger. His eyes twinkled. “But I did happen to catch a glimpse of the seven-headed Vishnu.”
“Larry was fearless, persistent and brutally funny. He was also brilliant and thoughtful. He dearly loved his family and life itself. He was a very fine friend, and we miss him greatly.”
From Jim Fuglie
“Ten or 15 years ago, we planned a canoe trip on the Upper Missouri River, one of about 15 we have taken on that big river. We agreed to meet on Friday morning and head west.
“Shortly before the trip, Larry announced he had a trial in Minot the week of our trip but that he thought he would be done by Friday. We agreed to pick him up at the Minot Courthouse after the trial. He thought he could get a verdict by noon.
“Seven of us arrived at the courthouse at the appointed time, dressed in our canoe clothes, a bunch of ragamuffins. We were not outfitted by Eddie Bauer. We parked and climbed the big steps of the courthouse and just hung out on the big landing outside the front door, waiting for Larry. People walking by and entering and exiting the courthouse must have thought we were a bunch of thugs there to bail someone out of jail.
“Finally Larry emerged in his suit and tie, with some other people in suits and ties. He took one look at us, then looked straight ahead and just kept walking, down the steps. At the bottom of the steps, he stopped while the others continued. After they were out of sight he turned around and said hello to us.
“We climbed into vehicles and headed west on U.S. Highway 2. Another grand canoe adventure was under way.”
From Gerry Reichert
“The first rule of Canoe Group is you don’t talk about Canoe Group. However, since I didn’t know Larry well before joining the group, I’m forced to share a bit about one of our trips, no need to be nervous, I want to assure my companions, this is just how I really got to know Larry Dopson.
“Late one evening on my first trip, next to a fire on the banks of the Upper Missouri River in Montana, a glass of Glenlivet 15-year-old Single Malt Scotch in hand, Larry, in answer to a question moved rapidly to quoting the history of Friedrich II of Prussia’ and Thomas Carlyle, both of whom were predictive of World War II, or something like that. My thought was, Wait! What? Who’s Fred?
“The remaining details are immaterial, what’s of great importance is I had another scotch knowing I had a new friend who was smarter and more interesting than the rest of us in this cast of characters.
“My friend Larry Dopson.”
From Ken Rogers
“Shoulders back and spine ramrod straight, Larry Dopson pulling a paddle blade through the water, swinging the bow of the canoe into the channel. That’s what I remember most of him. A steady rhythm of strong paddle strokes. The zen of the river. Badlands drifting past on either side.
“Our little flotilla typically spread out, one canoe behind the other; the most diligent boatmen in the front and the less-intent fellows lagging behind. Before long, Larry and his partner’s steady paddling pushed them ahead and out of sight.
“We would call out: “Slow down. Stop paddling.” Larry’s paddling remained ceaseless. Tugging us all through the river’s bends and twists.”
From Mike Burbach
“’Though sometimes a man of few words, Larry was known as a deep thinker,’” his obituary said. ‘He was a prodigious reader, particularly of biographies and histories. He was known by all for his quick wit and biting sense of irony …’
“To my eyes and ears during those glorious days on the river and nights by the fire, he was prodigiously curious … an intellectual adventurer … sometimes a man of few words, perhaps, but a man of many thoughts.
“I think of Larry every day. Literally.
“If you have to get up and get on the treadmill every morning, the promise of a short-term reward — cool stuff to listen to while you walk — helps get a guy moving. Documentaries about history and science, TED talks, historic speeches, great debates, etcetera, all kinds of things, whatever moves you at the moment.
“And whatever it is, whatever I’ve just listened to — history or biography, a discussion on the origins of the universe, a documentary on the rivers of North America or the mountains of South, how this thing works or that thing works, whatever it is that’s just been revealed to me on YouTube — at the end of the hour I have the same fond thought:
“I bet Dopson already knew that.”
From Bill Knudson
“Larry began his legal career with Joe Vogel about the same time I started as an appraiser apprentice under my dad, Darrell Knudson. Our appraisal company worked for the Vogel Law Firm often. This is where I first met Larry. Over the last 43 or 44 years we have become better and better friends. We played volleyball together, camped, hiked and floated in the same canoe together. He was a kind and gentle family man and loved his family dearly. Having the privilege of sharing a canoe and the cooking of meals around the campfire was a gift and like all of us you have heard from it was a special time every year. Larry was a trusted and true friend. He had a great wit and expansive knowledge of world affairs, sports, business and of course law. I could tell you stories by the handful but let the those you have heard suffice. We all know Larry as an extraordinary man. He was fun to be with and challenged us and brightened our days in many and different ways. Thank you, Larry.”
Yep, that’s Larry Dopson. Don’t you just really like him?