Remembering Larry Oakes

Larry Oakes

A few days ago, when most of the rest of the world was watching the Olympic opening ceremonies, I joined about seventy other people at an evening tribute for a noted Minnesota journalist. Larry Oakes was a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and before that, the Duluth News Tribune. He covered the crime beat and northern Minnesota stories.

Back in the 1980s, he was a few years ahead of me in journalism school. By the time I became the environmental reporter for the college newspaper (the Minnesota Daily), he had already moved on to an internship with the Minneapolis paper, and his name was legend among the Daily staff.

I didn’t meet Larry in person until I ended up back in Duluth working as a water science writer for the university’s Minnesota Sea Grant program. I was on the other end of the journalism profession now – a public relations hack who was trying to convince journalists to write about my organization’s research. We had lunch a few times as colleagues to talk over story ideas. Every time, I came away bowled over by his experience, not to mention his square-jawed good looks.

Some of my story ideas worked for him, some didn’t. That’s the way it goes. I do recall that Larry and a local radio news director, Mike Simonson, were especially helpful with one of the most popular stories of my career (so far!), which involved organizing a taste testing event for Great Lakes sea lamprey. We got the mayor together with the university chancellor and some other notable locals to taste dishes prepared by a volunteer gourmet chef who cooked lamprey several different ways for ratings.

After Larry married, he showed up at the same birthing class that my former husband and I were taking. Unfortunately, his wife was too sick from her pregnancy to attend, so I never met her. I felt sorry for him going through the classes alone, so I stood in as his partner sometimes when the activities required one. As the years passed, we also met at funerals and other local events. I recall thinking that Larry looked really rough at some of these events. I wondered if he had an illness or some other problem.

As it turns out, he suffered from depression and he also ended up having a stroke. Although he recovered enough from the stroke to resume his writing career, friends say he was never the same after it. In the end, the combination of factors and other things that perhaps only he knows were too much, and he took his life a year ago.

A journalism scholarship was created in his name at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The event I attended (instead of watching the Olympics) was to celebrate the creation of the scholarship and its first student recipient. I had mixed feelings watching the recipient (who wore the requisite gray vest of a journalist for the event). I was excited that he has this opportunity to help with his schooling, also scared for him. Starting out in anything is so hard. There’s always the conflict between what you want and what society will let you do. The process of figuring out your place can be terrifying, and well, depressing. But society has given him this chance, and hopefully, it’s what he really wants to do with his life.

The weird thing about the event was that I ended up sitting next to Gail, who was Larry’s hairstylist of over twenty years. I didn’t recognize her at first until I remembered I sat next to her at Larry’s funeral, also. It says something about Larry’s character that he went to the same stylist for so long — something about loyalty, friendship, and respect. Gail was lovely to talk to, and she and her friend kept me company until my friend for the evening arrived.

The world lost a great writer when depression took Larry. Although he sought help, it didn’t work for some reason. The heavy hands of depression have molded my family, my friends, and me. I lost my adopted sister to it; my father suffers from it and even at ninety-five is on depression medication. I have experienced bouts of situational depression, mainly tied to the impossible personal relationships that seem my specialty.

For me, depression is a signal that something needs changing, and that I either need to figure out how best to do that, or I need to let things run their course and just hang in there until they change. Some things I can handle myself. Some things the world needs to handle, and I need to have the wisdom to let it happen. It’s sort of like starting out in your career. There are things you want and things society wants. Finding the balance between the two is the trick.

I can’t stress how much reaching out for help is important if you have depression. It doesn’t necessarily have to be help from a professional. Sometimes friends can be better. Don’t worry about burdening them. Keeping it all locked up inside you is what kills. Sharing the burden makes it lighter – spreads it around. The world has lost too many talented people to depression. Please don’t let yourself be the next one.

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