Former Duluth Mayor Don Ness said he will remember his late friend Donn Larson for his "remarkable mind."
"He had tremendous insight. He had a quiet demeanor, very much somebody who understood community and political dynamics. And he was very patient with me peppering him with questions," Ness said, describing how they would regularly meet for lunch.
Larson, 91, an advertising agency owner, author, adviser and former Duluth city councilor, died Thursday at St. Luke's hospital.
Cindy Hayden, former co-owner of Lake Superior Magazine, counted Larson as a close personal friend and said, "He was one of the first people I went to for advice about the magazine when I got back involved in 1984. He really was one in a million. He was one of the most giving people I know — a truly outstanding man.
"He had a bead on the pulse of a lot of different things, from the politics to the industrial side to the nonprofit side. He really understood our region and our community exceptionally well," Hayden said.
Steve Isola, creative director for Positively Superior LLC, referred to Larson as "a mentor" and master strategist.
"That was a strength that all of his clients, from a small mom-and-pop shop all the way up to Minnesota Power, recognized and appreciated," he said.
Steve Greenfield, president of Greenfield Communications, described Larson as an effective influencer who didn't seek out the limelight.
"Donn Larson was just without peer when it came to strategizing and communicating and public relations and marketing," Greenfield said.
Greenfield recalled someone once asked Larson what set his advertising agency apart from others, and he responded: "They make ads. We solve problems."
Isola said Larson didn't seek out personal credit.
"He was one of those behind-the-scenes quiet forces in the Duluth market, having to do with promoting Duluth, encouraging business and improving business. He was involved with politics without being political," he said.
"I think his motivation was truly a love of Duluth and an appreciation of humanity," Isola said. "He went out of his way to make sure that what he did could make a difference, be it with an individual, a business or the community in general. It seemed like he had a work ethic that just wouldn't end, and he was unflappable when it came to giving his time and his opinions. He was always very thoughtful and concise."
Greenfield considered Larson a tireless community advocate and said: "He had such a great impact on so many boards and commissions in this community."
Larson was elected to the Duluth City Council, where he served eight years. But his civic service also extended to the Duluth Arena-Auditorium Administrative Board, the Duluth Charter Commission, the City Planning Commission, The Duluth Superior Area Community Foundation, the Lake Superior Center (Great Lakes Aquarium) Board, the Franciscan Health Center Board and the Park Point Community Club.
In 2004, he teamed up with Duluth businessman and friend, the late Manley "Monnie" Goldfine, to publish "The Will and the Way," a book that celebrated a number of key projects that had helped Duluth to grow.
"They were trying to pass the torch to the next generation," Hayden said.
The book inspired Ness, who said it helped motivate him to run for mayor. Ness and Larson would later partner in 2018 to produce a second volume of "The Will and the Way," documenting additional advances Duluth had made since the first book was published.
"It was remarkable to see his passion, his commitment and the tremendous amount of hard work that he put into the second volume when he was at times struggling with his own health issues. But he was the driving force behind that project, and it just once again demonstrated what a remarkable person he was," Ness said.