Yesterday I got the news that a former colleague committed suicide.
I didn’t know Larry Oakes very well in my days at the Star Tribune. Mostly, he worked out of the Duluth bureau — but occasionally he’d call the news desk in Minneapolis and ask me to transcribe a story. I remember him as a kind, funny, patient man.
I also remember him as a gifted reporter and a consummate storyteller.
As a reporter, he was skilled at getting the facts and weaving them seamlessly into his stories. But his true gift lay in always wanting to unearth the “why” behind those facts.
He was genuinely curious about people, and just as genuinely caring — two traits that were especially evident in his series about The Lost Youth of Leech Lake. In his series, he wrote about the increase in suicides and horrifically violent murders on the reservation. But mostly he focused on the hopelessness that was feeding the sad statistics.
How tragic and ironic that a few years later hopelessness would also claim Larry’s life.
My last correspondence with him was in April, through Facebook. He was recovering from an aneurysm that had almost killed him a few months earlier, but he sounded upbeat. He wrote about it in an article just three weeks ago:
… I was finishing a routine workout when a blood vessel in my head suddenly ruptured in a wave of searing pain.
I was in the hospital 16 days with a tube inserted deep into my head. It was a major brain hemorrhage, but I escaped the disabilities — difficulty walking and talking — that many stroke victims suffer at least temporarily.
The reason is a little bizarre.
According to the neurosurgeon who studied the CAT scans and MRIs of my head, a malformation of blood vessels had starved a portion of my brain of oxygen and prevented it from developing properly, probably before I was born.
Luckily, the fetal and infant brain is highly adaptable. The good parts simply assumed the prescribed functions of the part that didn’t develop — the part that remains to this day, in the words of the neurosurgeon, “silent.”
And it was into that silence that the same malformed cluster of vessels bled when I was 51 — inundating, pressurizing and starving the one and only portion of my brain where there are no vital functions being performed, no thoughts to kill.
That bullet whizzed right past my head. That thought still takes my breath away.
I am heartbroken that a second bullet found its mark on Friday.
Larry died in the northern woods where he’d often sought peace. “There, crouched in silence on the shore of an undisturbed lake with a fire flickering and Jupiter on the rise, a guy could believe with newfound certainty that while life is hard, its rewards can be great — and some moments are perfect,” he wrote.
I hope he has finally found a place of perfect peace.
My heartfelt condolences to Larry’s family and friends.