Two things surprised me about Vince Larsen’s obituary, which appeared in the Gazette on Tuesday.
The first surprise was his age. I don’t know that I ever thought how old he was, but 87? Vince had the energy and the intellectual curiosity of someone half that age, and he had a way of transmitting his enthusiasm for life to everyone around him.
The second surprise was that the obituary made no mention of the Four Dances Natural Area, the spectacular 765-acre property atop the Rims across the river from Coulson Park that Vince and his wife, Louise, put under a conservation easement and then sold to the Bureau of Land Management almost 20 years ago, at about half its appraised value.
It is there for all of us, in perpetuity, a unique slice of Montana and probably Vince’s most important legacy for people in this part of the world.
That’s how I met Vince, writing about Four Dances in 1998, when the transfer to the BLM was almost complete, and I crossed paths with him many times over the years. He always had something interesting to say, usually about current events, but the subject hardly mattered.
What mattered was that Vince was unfailingly passionate about whatever was on his mind. And he never failed to ask me about my youngest daughter, Pari. Years ago, as he had with so many young people, he had taken Pari under his wing. I asked her for her thoughts today and she wrote:
“Vince made me think about the world in ways I never had before. He and Louise were introduced to me through my friend Kiah Abbey. We were both so lucky as young women to have two passionate, intelligent and kind older people in our lives who genuinely believed in our potential as strong female forces for good in the world.
“Vince knew so much about the world and both its joys and its injustices, and he aimed to make them right.”
At his funeral service Wednesday morning, at First Presbyterian Church in Billings, the Rev. Dave Thompson read some of the responses he got when he asked family members and friends of Vince what one word they would use to describe him.
Those responses included: generous, caring, quiet, humble, kind, faithful, steady, wise, loyal and remarkable. Sounds like Vince to me.
Thompson mentioned something else that was perfectly Vince-like. One of the songs Vince chose for his funeral—which he’d planned out in some detail starting three months ago, knowing that his cancer was getting worse—was “Amazing Grace.”
That’s hardly an unusual choice for a funeral service, but Thompson said Vince liked it as much for its back story as it music and lyrics. The composer, John Newton, was an Englishman who captained slave ships before undergoing a conversion experience, after which he became an Anglican minister and a prominent supporter of the abolition of slavery.
Thompson also mentioned Vince and Louise’s steadfast support of Habitat for Humanity, the financial aid they gave to restaurant workers they befriended, all the college students they helped put through school.
Vince’s friend Earl Guss said that as far as he knew, Vince and Louise helped support at least one student a year at 10 or 12 different colleges. But the number could have been higher.
“I never knew how big that was,” Guss said. “He just never said much of anything about it. He did everything so quietly.”
Jim Duncan said Vince was also a quiet, steady supporter of Yes for Kids, which Duncan co-chaired and which was formed to round up financial support for School District 2.
Suddenly it made more sense that Vince’s obituary didn’t mention Four Dances—because it didn’t mention any of his philanthropic activities. It was something he probably insisted on. His humility was as genuine as it was thoroughgoing.
Jim Gransbery, a former Gazette reporter who knew Vince well, might have put it best when he said that Vince “devoted his whole life to being a good citizen.”
That’s just right, with its emphasis not only on being good, but being good in a way that made the world better, that improved society. Vince consistently acted in a way that made others want to be good citizens.
He had some strong opinions. Thompson said that when he became the minister at First Presbyterian, the first question Vince asked him was his take on the Palestinian-Israeli situation. Vince believed that this country’s virtually unconditional support of Israel was tragically harmful to the Mideast and eroded our own democratic values.
My own beliefs, such as they were, didn’t go that far, but I didn’t feel prepared to take on his passion and his deeply informed arguments. His obituary, probably wisely, didn’t mention Israel, either.
Significantly, what it did mention, and in great detail, was how growing up on the campus of an all-black college in Mississippi, where his father was the first full-time professor, was an experience that shaped the rest of his life, that made him eager to engage people of different nationalities, races and religions.
That was more important, in Vince’s mind, than talking about the good deeds he had done and the worthwhile causes he supported.
And he couldn’t resist using the platform of his obituary to leave people with one last, beautiful piece of advice.
“Walk outside in the dark of the night and look up at the sky,” he wrote. “Note the countless stars and realize how fortunate you really are to be alive in such a vast universe. Do something about the world that we live in. Give thanks and appreciate the gift of life that has been given to you. Do something for others every day and show your gratitude. Work for peace, it is so simple, just be kind and respectful of others.”
Thompson read that paragraph during the service on Wednesday and said, “There’s your homework, right from Vince.”
Vince was an eager student of the world for all of his long life, and a great teacher until the very end.