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Sam Cook column: At a pond in the woods, one man's gift to others

Chances are, you never met Larry Schanno. He didn't stray far from the Our Place restaurant and bar on the banks of the Baptism River in Finland. He had owned the bright and cheery place for almost 20 years.

Schanno died unexpectedly on March 20 at age 68.

I didn't know Schanno well, but I know this: He made a big difference to a group of veterans at the Minnesota Veterans Home in Silver Bay.

Here's how he did that: He built a pond on a piece of land he owned near Finland. With all the required permits, he captured the flow of three springs on a hillside until he had a pond 12 or 14 feet deep. He stocked it with brook trout and rainbow trout. The brookies grew up to 2 pounds, the rainbows to 5.

Nice fish, as they say.

Schanno did all of that so veterans from the residence in Silver Bay could come up and go fishing. He must have had a hunch how much that would mean to them. They came in a bus every Thursday. They were welcomed and helped to their stations on the edge of the pond by Schanno and his friends, who volunteered their time each week. A small American flag waved from each station. Schanno provided all the rods and reels. Someone brought night crawlers for bait. If anyone needed help casting, he received it.

And the veterans — some in wheelchairs, some bearing less visible scars of war — caught fish. I watched all of this one Thursday a couple of years ago. It was beautiful.

Schanno was not a veteran himself. He was a young man during the Vietnam War era. He failed his first military physical, then later passed his second, he said. But during the draft lottery held as the war intensified, he drew a high number and wasn't selected for service.

Schanno's father had died at 51, he said, the result of health issues that originated while he was fighting on Okinawa in World War II.

"I do this to honor my father and for those who served in my place," Schanno told me that day. "Our mantra is, 'We do good things for those who have done great things.' "

Bobbers plopped into the pond. Bobbers went down. Veterans reeled in trout. Someone was there to net them.

Schanno talked and joked with the vets, but then faded into the background. This was never about him. When it was time, he took his place at a pickup tailgate and began cleaning the day's catch. The fillets would go back to the vets' home in Silver Bay for a fish fry.

Schanno's efforts on behalf of veterans didn't stop at the pond. Every Wednesday, he'd have a bunch of them up for lunch at Our Place. And during deer season, he would allow some of them to come and hunt — from a heated trailer — on his property in the woods.

Jim Hanes, an Army vet from the Silver Bay home, was one of those lucky enough to shoot a deer — from his wheelchair, in the camper — one November day.

"I didn't think I'd ever go deer hunting again," Hanes said of that day. "Larry gave me the opportunity. I love the man. He made me feel like a human being again."

What greater gift could you offer someone? That's what Schanno was doing for those vets.

Not many of us have the opportunity in life to make contributions that touch thousands or millions of people. We aren't likely to be presidents or rock stars or Nobel Prize winners.

But we can do good things for people right in our backyards.

Nobody understood that better than Larry Schanno.

Larry Schanno's funeral arrangements

Visitation will be from 10 a.m. until the 11 a.m. Mass of Christian Burial on Saturday at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Silver Bay. A Masonic service will be held at 1 p.m. April 8 at Our Place in Finland.