Finishing what he started
Despite cancer, Veteran Bob Larson completed two years as Legion Commander, and is still serving
By Ed DuBois
When giving advice to his grandchildren, Bob Larson likes to tell them, "If you start something, finish it." Two years ago, he was faced with a tough decision. He had just accepted the position of American Legion Post 270 Commander, and then he was diagnosed with cancer.
Well, a person can usually work around most challenges in life and finish something that was started. But cancer? That presents a whole new level of challenge.
The Legionnaires certainly would have understood if Bob had elected to step down. But he decided to give it a try.
He was able to complete his two-year term as commander (from 2015 to 2017), and now he remains active with the Legion. In fact, he is not only active, he has accepted the position of District Vice Commander.
"I responded to the treatments well," he said. "I get tired a lot, but I can handle that."
Besides living up to the advice he gave his grandchildren, Bob was inspired by his wife and a granddaughter. They are both cancer survivors.
Grew up in Rochester
Bob and his wife, Jennifer, have been married 49 years. They were high school sweethearts in Rochester, and they went steady about eight years.
Finally, Jennifer could wait no longer for a proposal.
"Here's Jennifer's proposal to me," Bob recalled. "She said, 'Either we are getting married or I am moving to California with my girlfriends.'"
Bob doesn't believe she would have actually moved to California, but he well understood the message.
Now, 49 years later, they have a son in Delano and a daughter in Orono, and seven grandchildren.
Born and raised in Rochester, Bob graduated from John Marshall High School in 1962. He then earned a two-year degree at Rochester Junior College.
While in college, he worked at a local TV station, KROC. He said he was a cameraman while he was in college.
Wanted to fly
His dream at the time was to become a Navy jet pilot and then get a job as an airline pilot. He took flying lessons at the local airport and obtained a single-engine pilot's license.
Surprisingly, he suffered from airsickness in the beginning. He worked out an arrangement to address the problem. His first four flying lessons were only half-an-hour long. This helped him get over the airsickness.
In 1965, he applied to become a Navy pilot. At the time, he only needed two years of college, but during a delay that involved completing paperwork that was required because his mother was from Canada, the college requirement changed. He suddenly needed a four-year degree.
A decision needed to be made. Should he go back to school or apply to become a helicopter pilot in the Army?
He was young and did not want to wait two years. Even though he knew he would likely end up getting shot at in Vietnam, he applied for helicopter flight training in the Army. However, he was turned down because of a back injury he had suffered in the eleventh grade.
Meanwhile, U.S. troops were sent to fight in Vietnam.
Joined the Army
Bob did not want to be drafted. He joined the Army so he could have some say about the type of duty he would perform. He was in the Army from 1966 to 1972.
During basic training at Fort Bragg, N.C., Bob achieved a perfect score of 100 on his individual proficiency test. During rifle qualifications, he was an expert with the M-14.
For advanced training, he studied ordnance repair at the Aberdeen (Maryland) Proving Ground and was the top student in the class.
Bob was assigned to the 544th Heavy Equipment Maintenance Company as an ordinance repair specialist. Locations where he served included Wabasha, Minn. and Fort McCoy, Wis.
He worked on all types of rifles, as well as .45-caliber pistols. The work kept him busy.
"Stuff was always breaking," he commented.
Repairs of M-1 and M-14 rifles were usually simple. The M-16 was a bit different.
"The BAR (M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle) had a very different setup. The bolt split in half," Bob mentioned.
He eventually figured out each weapon.
"After you learn to fix one, you learn to fix 'em all," he said.
Didn't like standing in line
He rose in rank from Private to Private First-Class, and then to Specialist 4 and Specialist 5.
He was waiting for acceptance as an Ordinance Warrant Officer when he was discharged.
Asked about life in the Army, he said there was one thing he did not appreciate.
"I didn't like standing in line," he said. "I still don't."
Worked for Valspar
In civilian life, Bob worked 25 years for the Valspar Corporation, a worldwide paint manufacturer. Positions he held included: territory sales manager, district sales manager, regional sales manager, and national account manager. He began in Baltimore for five years and then worked in downtown Minneapolis. He also worked for a time in Albany, N.Y.
Approaching retirement, Bob and Jennifer looked for a place where they could be close to their children and grandchildren. They found a home in Buffalo and moved from Plymouth to Buffalo 15 years ago. Jennifer's work was as a contract underwriter with a mortgage business.
Looking for an organization to join, Bob became the president of the local Let's Go Fishing with Seniors chapter in 2012. He was president for three years.
Became a Legionnaire
He also joined American Legion Post 270, first as a member of the honor guard. Later, he became the 2nd Vice Commander, and then in 2015, he became the Commander.
"The week after I was nominated for post commander, I was diagnosed with stage-four prostate cancer," Bob said. "I thought about withdrawing my nomination but decided to accept the post commander position and not worry if my cancer would keep me from serving my two-year commitment."
Today, he is the Jr. Vice Commander, which he said is the same as Past Commander.
Another Past Commander, Bonnie Hanson, was serving as the Tenth District Commander last year, and she asked Bob if he would serve as the District Vice Commander. Bob accepted, and now he visits posts all over the district and promotes American Legion membership efforts.
Quality of life
He still has cancer, but the treatments have been allowing him to enjoy a relatively good quality of life, he said.
Along with his American Legion activities, Bob was invited to join the 40 & 8 organization with St. Cloud Voiture 415. He described 40 & 8 as a Legion offshoot.
It was created in 1920 as an honor society of Legionnaires. The invitation-only organization gets its name from World War I, during which soldiers were transported to the front lines in France in narrow railroad boxcars called voitures. They could either hold 40 soldiers or 8 horses.
Purposes of the 40 & 8 organization include: promoting Americanism, supporting a national nursing scholarship program, supporting child welfare programs, and providing aid to veterans.
Bob has been recently elected Chef de Gare (post commander) of St. Cloud Voiture 415. Previously, he served at Drapeau (keeper of the flag), Garde de la Porte (inner door guard, sergeant at arms) and Chef de Train (train master, vice commander). In 2015, he was appointed Grand Drapeau for the Grand Voiture.
Finished what he started
"Serving in the 40 & 8 is a little more fun than the Legion. We hold meetings at Legion posts and raise money mostly for nurse training scholarships," Bob said.
His service in the American Legion and the 40 & 8 organization has cut into his retirement time, but he doesn't seem to mind.
Fellow Legionnaires certainly would have understood if he had decided to step down after his cancer diagnosis, but he chose to finish what he started.
After all, that's what he tells his grandchildren to do.
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