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Larry D. Friesen

August 8, 2020

Larry D. Friesen, who always enjoyed a good laugh, successfully eluded his decade-long nemesis, frontal temporal dementia (FTD), on August 8, 2020.  FTD may have imprisoned his body and his mind, but his spirit managed to escape and lives on – he got the last laugh, after all. Some will remember him for donning a man-sized Raggedy Ann costume on Halloween to go trick-or-treating with his daughter (and drawing a large crowd). Others will recall him pulling on lederhosen to perform a piano duet with his brother Duane. Those closest to him know he never missed a chance to show off or ham it up. Younger brothers have to find their niche, somehow.


Larry was the second son of Waldo H. Friesen and Linda (Zielke) Friesen, born on November 20, 1944, in American Falls, Idaho. The family braved the Idaho winters, harvested potatoes in fall with the extended family, raised crops, milked cows in any kind of weather, and went camping in the mountains when farming allowed. Larry was the family mechanic, although his first experiment with his electric drill shredded his pants and left a lasting leg impression. His idyllic, if isolated, childhood was full of critters, 4H cows, church, chores, and cousins. He fulfilled the family goal of education by graduating from Bethel College, earning a master’s degree in social work from the University of Denver, and completing his doctorate in social work from Columbia University, New York City.

In Denver he met Donna, a fellow social work student who initially thought he was just a show-off. She changed her mind. In 1969 they were married and began their 50-year journey together.

Coming of age in the 1960s, Larry’s life was influenced by the social justice movements of the time, much like the climate we find ourselves in today. A family tragedy sparked his interest in mental health, and his early career reflected that, including working in community mental health, emergency services, and children’s programs in Colorado, Maine, and Kansas. As a professor of social work at Bethel College, his greatest satisfaction was helping prepare students for the challenges they would face in life and work and expand their knowledge of diverse people and cultures. He brought his experiences of the 1960s to the classroom, teaching students to advocate for those in need and to always (constructively) question authority. Larry’s legacy will live on in the many students he mentored over the years. Each has her or his favorite “Larry story.”

In 1980, Larry became a devoted father to a lucky daughter, Katy. As a parent, he offered un-ending support, respect, kindness, humor, and adventure.

In the more than 40 years he lived in Harvey County, he supported numerous community organizations, either by serving on boards, involving his students in research, or just sharing his wisdom. He served for eight years on the USD #373 School Board (1992-2000), where he advocated for students and families, particularly those with challenges, as well as all educators. He was also instrumental in expanding the hiring of school social workers.

Alongside his professional life, Larry was always fixing or building something. He built furniture, turned bowls on his lathe, and drilled wells with a home-built rig in the back yards of friends and family. He still planted potatoes every spring.

For his family, favorite memories are of epic summer road trips and camping adventures. Grand Teton National Park held a special place in Larry’s heart. He liked to tell the story of climbing to the top of a haystack on the farm in Idaho on a clear day and being able to see the tops of the Tetons.  As a boy, he often spent family vacations there, camping, fishing, hiking, and enjoying each other’s company. He passed that love of the West on to Donna and Katy. Nothing energized Larry more than seeking out the perfect campsite (very early in the morning), setting up camp, firing up the Coleman stove, and experiencing nature.

Last October, the family celebrated Donna and Larry’s 50th anniversary, Larry’s 75th birthday, and Katy’s marriage to Christian, knowing that the future of Larry’s journey was unknown. He was surrounded by close friends and family, including his new Ecuadorian family. Larry and his grandson Matias quickly became fond of each other.

Larry lives on in the hearts of his wife Donna June, of Hesston, and his daughter Katy June-Friesen and son-in-law Christian Samaniego, of Hyattsville, Md. He will be greatly missed by his brother, Duane K. Friesen and sister-in-law Elizabeth (Voth) Friesen of North Newton, as well as his aunt, Laura Friesen of North Newton. Brothers-in-law Warren L. Prell (Deborah) of Barrington, R.I., and George F. Prell (Linda) of Indianapolis, Ind., will also miss his sense of humor and adventure, as will his nieces and nephews: Anne Friesen Birky (Brett) of Denver; Sarah Friesen Guhr (Brad) of Newton; Tyler Prell (Christy) of Washington, D.C.; Tamara Piasecki (Bill) of Upton, Mass.; Jake Prell, Michigan; Jessica Gockley of St. Augustine, Fla.; and Hannah Miller (Ryan) of Indianapolis, Ind. His great nieces and nephews are Henry Guhr and Ben Guhr, Newton; Elizabeth “Lizzie” Birky and Katie Rose Birky, Denver; Aviendha Prell, Michigan; Luke, Sophia, and Bella Gockley, St. Augustine, Fla.; Daley Prell, Washington, D.C.; and Karis, Colby, and Griffin Piasecki of Upton, Mass. He is also survived by 14 first cousins, who will miss him at the next Friesen reunion.

Due to Covid-19, a celebration of Larry’s life will take place sometime in 2021. His former students are encouraged to attend and share their memories and “Larry stories.” In the meantime, memorials may be sent to the Bethel College Department of Social Work (online or contact the development office), Good Shepherd Hospice, and Mennonite Central Committee.

Finally, share your diagnoses and relinquish a little privacy; you’ll receive more support that way. Brain diseases are especially difficult to navigate, and more common than you might think. Let’s work together to eliminate the stigma associated with dementias.




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27 thoughts on “Larry D. Friesen

  1. What a lovely obituary – it captures his warmth and humor. I wish I had lived close enough to get to know him better, but I always appreciated his soft spirit and strong intellect.

  2. Sending you and Donna June much love, Katie.
    So many wonderful memories of our time together in Maine as colleagues and friends. We shared a garden one year and Larry decided that the woodchuck who kept invading it was Italian because he ate all the peppers, eggplant and oregano, and constantly evaded Karma, the guardian beagle.
    Gene also escaped dementia this January so I share your heartbreak and the peace that surrounds them both now.

  3. Enjoyed reading this beautifully-written memory of Larry. It brought back so many good times we spent with him. His was a life well lived, full of good humor and a strong sense of justice. Miss you already, Larry.

  4. Dear Friesen family,
    I had the pleasure of working with Larry at Bethel College in the 80s. He was a wonderful faculty member, coworker and person. We will miss him.

  5. What a beautifully written obituary honoring Larry. Lunch time in the Bethel cafeteria was always more fun and informative when Larry was at the table. Lots of good memories of weekend socializing–Donna and Larry, Wayne and Gail. ❤

  6. This is a very beautiful life. I am honored to just be able to read about Larry Friesen here. Thanks, Cousin Donna for helping me see it, living my life, never having met your handsome, sturdy and absolutely fantastic husband of fifty years. Life is strange. I feel like I know him, after all. I did move to where you once !over in Maine without knowing until much later that you lived here before. Katy, you have a great Dad. A big Haloween Raggedy Ann? That is so cool! I am so happy that Matias and your Dad got to together. I am blown away by this beautiful soul called Larry. Planting potatoes and looking out for people and caring for them is such a good thing. Wow, what a man. Donna, you and Larry married good people. Love is all we got. Good for you and Larry and Katy. Sorry I did not get to be a part of this beautiful family love story, except through some catch-up, late in our lives, but I am so happy it all happened and to learn more about Larry now. Down with disease! Love and peace, Cousin Alice from Castine Maine

  7. Larry was an amazing colleague, mentor, and friend – a champion for social justice locally, nationally, and internationally. We will miss Larry’s critical insight, empathetic spirit, wry sense of humor, and party attitude.

    With love and gratitude for a life well-lived.

    John and Karen

  8. Larry was a man whose life had a concretely positive impact on the world and those around him. The effects of his public service, mentorship and love will outlive us all.

  9. What a wonderful tribute to a great colleague. It was always a pleasure to be around him. Our thoughts are with you Donna June and Katie.

  10. Such a beautiful tribute for a beautiful man and someone who helped shape me into the social worker I am today. Larry will be greatly missed.

  11. Larry, was a great guy and a good friend. He contributed professionally and personally.
    I’m going to miss him.

  12. Larry was one of those valued colleagues who helped to keep me honest and centered. And for that, I will be forever grateful.

  13. Someone mentioned memorable lunchtimes in the cafeteria–yes! I affirm the memories of Larry and Duane in lederhosen at Faculty Follies. Larry was a great colleague and friend.

  14. Our deepest sympathy to Donna, Katy, and the family. As teachers, we appreciated Larry advocating for the students and the teachers. Though we didn’t know Larry well, he always seemed like such a kind, caring soul. And he and Donna can be so proud of the wonderful daughter they raised! A lovely obituary for a man who will be missed.

  15. Marvelous, captivating, impressive life story!
    We’ve appreciated so much about Larry, beginning with his student days at Bethel plus years as a colleague.
    With love and sympathy to his family.

  16. I have fond memories of working with Larry on the USD 373 Board of Education. He brought a passion for students along with an optimistic outlook. He was a great role model for others. My sincere sympathy is extended to his family.

  17. We knew Larry at Bethel and then went to graduate school at University of Denver together.
    I bet not many of you can say that Larry pierced your ears with a needle and ice. It was quite the operation. I still have the holes to prove it. Wonderful human being.

  18. I just saw this obituary for Larry. He was such a genuine, terrific professor, colleague and comforting or encouraging friend to many. What a beautiful tribute written here and such a sad loss for his family and friends. I remember him fondly from the 28 years I worked at Bethel College. RIP Larry.

  19. So very sorry Donna June & Katy! I worked with Larry for eight years on the Newton Board of Education! When we first got one the board we were going to change the world! Getting Liz new blinds for Lincoln School! Ha. I remember his sense of humor, didn’t like to sit still very long at a meeting, & willingness to listen! Again my deepest sympathy & hugs

  20. Thank you for posting this moving tribute to Larry. My family knew him as a kind and helpful neighbor for many years on East 7th Street. A special memory is working with him on a neighborhood committee to preserve the Roosevelt school yard as a park—one of his many good works that lives on. And another: When Larry’s wonderful daughter Katy was finished using a 1984 blue Volvo, it was passed up the street to protect, tank-like, our daughter Lily as she traveled her first years as a driver. Thank you Larry, Donna, and Katy. We will miss you, and remember you.

  21. What a wonderful tribute for Larry. It’s one of the best I’ve ever read! I always enjoyed visiting with Larry when our paths would cross at the Bethel. He was funny and kind and always smiling. He will be greatly missed. Prayers to you Donna and your family.

  22. My first office as a professor was across the hall from Larry’s. I learned so much from him – what it meant to be there for students, the importance of assuming good intent, and the social value of sharing a story. He was a truly great man and kind soul and his mentorship was a gift I cherish to this day.

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