Former boxing champion Muhammad Ali once said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.” This quote conjures up memories of Mayor Don Larson who died Dec. 11 at the age of 80.
Larson, who passed away after a long battle with cancer, chalked up an impressive record of public service and will be remembered for his dedication to the City of Seaside. Larson, however, was not without controversy and left many people feeling conflicted. He was stubborn on some policies and bullied his way trying to get the ODOT Highway 101 vote to pass. This then raises the question of how exactly do we remember him? Do we gloss over the conflicts or honor his accomplishments?
While I attended his memorial service on Friday, it became clear that Mayor Larson would be remembered for his accomplishments; his motives were always to advance the city and soon became one of Seaside’s most enduring advocates.
Larson was mayor of Seaside from 2002 to 2016. He has been credited for his dedication to Seaside, to his church, his family, and to the children of the AWANA youth group. He was instrumental in putting Seaside on the Tree City map and active within the League of Oregon Cities, as well as serving on several committees and commissions throughout his tenure.
He was a positive force in seeing the expansion and renovation of Broadway Park, including a skate park and boat ramp. He saw the fulfillment of the new library, the installation of the lights at the intersection of Broadway and Columbia streets, and most recently, the renovation of the North Holladay Drive project.
One of his strengths as mayor of the city he loved so much didn’t necessarily come from his stalwart work ethic and tireless commitment to fulfilling his duties, it was that he understood and advocated for the city’s residents regardless if you agreed with him or not. He understood that people wanted to live here in Seaside for the quality of living, the services the city provided and the recreation amenities.
His success as mayor was reflected in his recurring reelection — some uncontested and without a platform. Despite his disappointment that the ODOT Highway 101 project failed, most voters in Seaside believed Larson was a good mayor, and in many ways, he was. He was a hands-on mayor who served the city well.
His fellow leaders as well as former and current members of the community whose lives he touched over the years admired him. And some, along with family members and clergy, offered heartfelt tributes to Larson during his memorial.
I met Mayor Larson in January 2004 when I became managing editor for the Seaside Signal, under the ownership of Dick and Margaret Larson (no relation). He was welcoming and always forthcoming with his time whenever I called. I regularly covered the council meetings and Larson quickly became a constant contact. He often gave me a call after reading the latest edition of the Signal to discuss this or that, especially when we disagreed on certain points. And, though I always respectively referred to him as Mayor Don Larson or Mayor Larson in those articles, I fondly called him just “mayor” anytime I saw him out and about, or during one of our many telephone conversations that he always ended by saying, “Thank you for making me sound good,” or “Thank you for being truthful in your coverage;” even if the coverage was negative.
After I left the Signal to become managing editor for another company, he tried hard to persuade me to return by saying, “You were the best editor the paper had and it really needs you back.” It did not work, but it was a nice compliment. Years later, I realized he gave the same compliment to other former employees — and that is OK.
Mayor Larson’s military experience, I believe, provided a natural segue into his electoral politics as a member of the Seaside City Council. His zeal for advocating Seaside endured until he succumbed to the cancer that took his life. He will be remembered for his service to the city and to the community he cared so much about. In return, the city named the Seaside Library the Don E. Larson Building, an honor he lived to see.
Larson was proud of the City of Seaside, proud of the officers in blue and the volunteer fire department; and he loved the old fire engine. The fire department would bring out the old truck for many of the city’s parades. I recall that Larson would always make a point before a council meeting adjourned to announce that Old Mac would make an appearance in the parade. Those in the audience and on the dais knew what that meant. He loved riding the old fire engine, and if you ever had the chance to see him, he was easy to spot with his wide-eyed grin spanning from ear to ear.
Those who knew Larson described him as dedicated and passionate about Seaside. He poured a lot of effort and heart into the city and its projects. I would agree even if his stubbornness — and he could be a stinker at times — got in his way. The question of how to remember Mayor Larson depends on his conflicts or his admiration. If you thought of him as difficult and conflicted, then that is the way it should be. Likewise, if you thought of him as a good mayor, you should remember him as such. We all have a tendency to romanticize people we have lost, but the reality is that Larson had a hearty dose of both positive and negative qualities, and it is OK to remember both.
Don Larson was proud to serve the Seaside community as its mayor for 14 years, and the community was, in return, proud to have had his service.
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