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Ode: Kirby Kaufman

kirby_kaufman.jpg
Ally Karsyn
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Three years ago, as a newspaper reporter in Council Bluffs, Iowa, I met a dying a man named Larry Spalti, who at age 97, was probably happier than most people who were counting down the days to death. Happier than some of us could ever hope to be.

larry_spalti.jpg
Credit Kirby Kaufman
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  It was August, not too warm, and not too cool. This man, who lived in a white house next to a Dairy Queen, called my work and wanted someone to tell his story.

The paper wrote about this man once before, 1997 maybe. It was a special pullout about healthy and active senior citizens. I read the article, which described Larry as an energetic man, but I still didn't know him. I couldn't piece together why his story was so important -- or why it was more important than others. People often want us to share their stories, and more often than not, no one takes the time to listen, and their stories just disappear.

At the time, I was reluctant and unhappy with life. I was mad at things. I was mad at people. I was mad at things that didn't matter or were out of my control. I wasn't making any money. I had a lot of debt. I still do. I was frustrated because even though my friends and family saw me as successful, I didn't see the same thing. 

He talked about his love for music. And really all people should love music because it's something to relate to. Larry never did play a complete song. He really didn't have it in him.

Because if you hate someone, odds are there's still a song you two might like. Unfortunately, Larry and I didn't find a song we both liked. While his love for music remained in old age, his dexterity had declined. At the time, he had the notes to 110 songs committed to memory.

But when he reached for the piano, I saw a man whose hands shook between striking each key of his electronic organ. Just a man who loved music and still wanted to play it all.

When I talked to Larry, the conversation lasted about two hours. That's longer than most, really. Usually when I talk to people, I think about what I need for a good story. Once I have that, I'm out.

The day I talked to Larry wasn't a busy day. I think I pulled a five dollar bill out of my pocket, at some point later, and bought some greasy Chinese food for lunch.

What I do remember is meeting Larry at his house, old letters, newspaper articles and just so many treasures of his life lying around his home located just off the main street in town.

Medication bottles, phone numbers written on paper, a lot of canned food in his kitchen.

Larry, who had an advanced stage of bladder cancer, smiled a lot, in fact -- more than I ever did. A dying man was happier than me, a healthy guy in his early 20s. 

He wore a tuxedo most days because it made him feel good. Larry had a motto: "Always be the best dressed." Maybe Larry was out to impress a lucky lady at the senior center several blocks away, where he once was nominated as the sexiest senior in town. 

On the day I met him, Larry wore a white tuxedo with a red handkerchief in his pocket. 

He was born on May 21, 1915. 

Larry's mom lived until age 93. 

I was born on Dec. 28, 1989. 

Larry died on Jan. 6, 2014. 

He was 98. I am 26. Larry once said his friends died because they either smoke or drank too much. Most of my friends are still around. 

Larry rarely drank. I drink more than I should. I smoke sometimes. Larry also said his long life was connected to how little television he watched. It's ironic because he retired from his own TV repair business in 1983. 

I learned of Larry's death when the manager of a Burger King told my editor that he hadn't seen Larry in a few weeks. His obituary appeared in the paper not long after.

Larry's death wasn't something I always thought about, but I kept it in the back of my head. It became a distraction after a while. 

We were told Larry would stop by for a burger, and the workers would cut the sandwich in half for him. It was a simple task, and they complied. A simple thing that made him happy. 

And that's when I learned a lesson from Larry, the tuxedo-wearing man once nominated as the sexiest senior in town, the man who smiled much and loved to dance. It’s the little things that can make us happy – whether it’s being the best-dressed, listening to an old song or biting into a burger, perfectly cut in two. 

They can make me happy.

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Kirby Kaufmann is the City Hall Reporter for the Sioux City Journal. His story was recorded at the first Ode storytelling event, which took place in January. The next event is tomorrow night. The theme is "Inspirations and Influences," and in addition to the live stories, singer/songwriter Enny Owl will perform beginning at 6:45, and artist Jodi Whitlock will be displaying her works.

To learn more, find Ode Storytelling on Facebook.

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