Tears and laughter
Larry Laver’s childhood on a farm prepared him for an active, hardworking lifestyle. He spent his youth running up and down creek beds and helping his neighbors bale hay. He always wanted a horse but didn’t own one until he was an adult, when he sometimes competed in team roping events.
He served as a mechanic in the U.S. Army in Germany during the Vietnam era, then came home to start a family but later got divorced. He worked at Iola’s John Deere dealership for years and owned cattle.
At some point in his early 40s, around the time he remarried, Larry noticed a problem with his leg. Sometimes it gave out on him. As time went by, it got worse and worse.
He started using a cane, then a walker. Finally, a wheelchair.
Now, at the age of 74, Larry is almost entirely paralyzed. He has use of only his right arm and hand, and can turn his head just a bit. He can still speak.
It took doctors years to figure out Larry has Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, a rare progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. With ALS, motor neurons die and the brain can no longer control muscle movement, leading the muscles to atrophy. The disease usually strikes between the ages of 40 and 70 and affects about 20,000 Americans at any given time, according to The ALS Association. Military veterans are about twice as likely to be diagnosed with the disease as the general public, but the reason for that is unknown according to the The ALS Association.
Despite his disability, Larry is compelled to remain as active as possible. It’s been about three years since he took up woodworking as a hobby.
“A lot of people want to sit in their house and do nothing. I just can’t do that,” he said.
Recent creations include a child’s desk, a pet feeder, squirrel feeder, toolboxes and wagons, all of which he’s given to friends and family.
His biggest fan is his wife of 25 years, Judy.
“I think I’d feel so sorry for myself, but he doesn’t,” Judy said. “He calls it determination.”
Judy wants this story to be about Larry. The challenges he’s overcome. His determination.
But you can’t tell Larry’s story without Judy, and their love and devotion to one another.
Larry Laver’s son customized his workbench to better fit a wheelchair.
YEARS AGO, Judy’s co-worker at Emprise Bank encouraged her to go on a date with Larry.
“He’s always so dirty,” Judy responded.
“He’s a mechanic. He just came from work,” the co-worker explained.
Then one day, Larry came into the bank all spiffed up. He needed to change an account, which was Judy’s job. She saw the tall, lanky mechanic in a different light once he was clean. It was nearly Thanksgiving, so she later called to ask if he had dinner plans.
Larry had known Judy for years and always thought, “She’s a good-looking gal.”
He did have plans for that Thanksgiving, but the two soon started dating. They eventually married, merging a family that included Judy’s three children and Larry’s two.
When they first started dating, Larry was beginning to realize he had some sort of health problem. His muscle impairment gradually worsened, and doctors first thought he suffered from primary lateral sclerosis or multiple sclerosis. He wasn’t diagnosed with ALS until about five years ago.
The couple lives on the outskirts of Iola, surrounded by fields and solitude. Judy grew up in town but quickly grew to love the country life.
“She didn’t know what the country was until she got with me,” Larry said.
“I love it out here,” Judy added. “We go for drives to see the deer. We sit outside and watch the sunrises and the sunsets.”
They tore down an old house on the property and had a modular home brought in. They’ve been able to remodel the home to fit Larry’s mobility issues thanks to help from the Veterans Administration. They praised the VA for its help with the house and equipment for Larry, including wheelchairs, and his general health care.
They raised cattle for many years. Larry had his horses, including his favorite, a palomino named Nugget who lived to the ripe old age of 38. Nugget wasn’t the kind of horse that just anyone could ride, but he and Larry shared a special bond. Larry used him for his team roping events. He also was fond of Daisy, a special horse who would lay her head in Larry’s lap as he visited her in his wheelchair. She died three years ago; Larry saved her tail, which still hangs in his woodshop.
Of all the mobility he’s lost, Larry misses horseback riding the most.
One day, Judy got kicked by a donkey. She rushed to the garage, crying, to show Larry where she’d been kicked. She fell onto the control button of his electric wheelchair and the two of them went ‘round and ‘round in circles until they could figure out how to stop.
“It started in tears and ended in laughter,” Larry recalled.
“We hang in there and make the best of it,” Judy said of the challenges they’ve faced with Larry’s disability. “I’m so proud of him. He never feels sorry for himself. He’s never mean to me — and I know there’s times I deserve it. He’s real calm and patient.
“I’m his caregiver now. I do everything for him.”
“Maybe that’s why I’m so nice to you,” Larry quipped.
LARRY STARTED his woodworking hobby as a way to stay active, despite his limited capacity to do so.
The garage has been converted to a woodshop. Larry’s son modified an existing workbench so Larry can slide his wheelchair under it. He has a variety of woodworking equipment that has been modified to meet his needs. He designs and plans his creations, making his own template. He measures and cuts the wood, joins it together, then sands and paints the finished product.
The most difficult part is holding the pieces still so he can work on them.
“Just give me time and I’ll figure it out somehow. It might not be real pretty but I’ll get it done,” he said. “It means a lot to me that I can still do something.”
No matter the weather, Larry likes to be in his woodshop. Most of his smaller pieces take one or two days. Something more complex, like his signature one-piece child’s desk, can take up to five days. He’s donated several pieces to be sold as a fundraiser for an annual family reunion, but otherwise doesn’t sell his creations.
“Really and truly, I can’t believe how anybody can do the things he does with just one arm,” Judy said. “I have no patience at all but he stays real calm. I say, ‘How do you do this?’ and he says, ‘Determination.’”
“That’s just the way I am, I guess. It’s how I was raised,” Larry explained. “I’m just a good ol’ boy.”
When Judy repeated the sentence, it had a different connotation. “You are a good ol’ boy,” she said with a loving emphasis on the word “good.”