Hopelessness, and a life cut short

Yesterday I got the news that a former colleague committed suicide.

Larry Oakes, in Dec. 2012.

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.


    • Isn’t it, Xandré? Everything stopped making sense when I got the news yesterday. We lost a wonderful journalist — and an equally wonderful human being. 😦

    • Maybe it’s precisely because he *was* an incredibly sweet man that things wounded him so deeply, Mark. It breaks my heart to think of how much he must have been suffering.

    • Thanks for your kind words, and especially for keeping his family in your thoughts and prayers. I can’t imagine how devastated they must be, but I hope they at least feel loved by the community — both near and far — that surrounds them. Thank you.

    • Thanks for your very kind words. Larry was indeed a gentleman who touched many, many lives. It’s a shame he’ll never know how much he was loved. I guess it’s a lesson to show people we care, while we still can.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful words, Jim. Although I didn’t know him very well, I think I’m feeling the loss so profoundly because he was such a genuine, kind human being. The world feels a little colder and emptier without him today.

  1. So sorry to hear this. Wishing the best for you and all the others who knew him. Suicide is one of the worst ways to die because of the way that those left behind become convinced that they could have prevented it, even though this is not true.

    • Thank you for your very kind and thought-provoking comment, jumbledwriter. You are so right that one of the cruelest things about suicide is the self-recrimination it instills in those left behind. Larry’s family did everything they could to help him, so I hope they can find some comfort in knowing that.
      I’m sure there are some cases in which a person is so bent on self-destruction that suicide is inevitable, but I still hold out hope that we may get better at recognizing — and treating — severe depression.

  2. The sadness of suicide is the feeling that we have all failed. We each strive to make our own world perfect, sometimes (albeit unwittingly) at the expense of those who simply aspire to a world that is bearable; and we only take note of them when they fall. Of course, we can’t all be responsible for each individual suicide. But we can at least strive to do better for the good of all and thereby demonstrate that no life is lived in vain.

    • Beautifully said, Xpat. Larry’s death leaves me feeling that we all failed him, somehow. But it has also left me striving to do better. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been feeling the past couple of days.

  3. I’m so sorry. What a sad start to the year. I know that you will be feeling this loss deeply, for a number of reasons, and my heart goes out to you and to Larry’s family. He has left a fine legacy in both his meaningful journalism and in the love and respect which his family and friends so clearly feel.

  4. I just learned of this minutes ago. I happened upon and read Larry’s followup to the Cass Lake series and Googled his name in hopes of finding an email address because I wanted to tell him that he is perhaps the most brilliant reporter I’ve ever read, the best storyteller. And my Google search soon brought tears to my eyes. I am white, and was married into the tribe in the early 70’s and remained an insider until the late 80’s. I remember when a wild night involved a fistfight at Mission Bridge at 3:00 AM, generally dissolving into a wrestling match with perhaps a shirt being torn. Life was indeed decadent, but the horrors that came in later years were simply unimaginable then. Truly, I do think that, of all the people I knew in those days, more lie beneath the sod than above it. Larry’s series fearlessly captured a time and place of unspeakable danger. I was friends with the senselessly murdered blind man, who was also an albino, when we were all young together. His sister babysat our daughter, now 45, when we had our nights on the town. I never met young Larry, but I knew his dad, as well as then-bank president Jim Bianco — both the finest of men. They red-lined no one in the bank’s lending. Everyone had a chance to get a loan at their bank, even if it was just to buy a color TV, and thus the chance to establish a credit rating. The bank’s motto was “Bi-Doon Zhoo-Ne-Yah,” which translates to bring money(!) What a loss Larry’s passing was to the world of reporting. I myself became a journalist and publisher, and so — belatedly — I bid farewell and pay homage to the great Larry Oakes III. He was one of us.

    • I am so sorry that you learned about Larry’s untimely passing through your internet search, John; what a horrible shock that must have been for you — just as it was for his community of friends and colleagues at the Star Tribune when we first heard the heartbreaking news. But I thank you for sharing your memories of Larry here through your tribute. I hope that in this great universe there is a way for your words to reach him. I think he would be honored and pleased to learn about the profound influence he had on you, and to know that you are carrying on his legacy by becoming a journalist and publisher yourself. May he live on in the hearts of those whose lives he touched …

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