Larry Willson rides to 'the end of the cattle drive'

More than two years after his death, Larry Ray Willson's last wish is coming true.

On Saturday, a life-size bronze statue of a cowboy on a rearing horse is to be installed at the entrance to the Town of Minden where highways 88 and 395 intersect.

Willson, born in 1952 at Frieda Pitts' Gardnerville maternity hospital, commissioned the $31,000 statue to honor the men and women of the Dangberg Ranch where he grew up.

Stricken with Lou Gehrig's disease, Willson died Sept. 17. 2003, before the realization of his dream.

Brenda Stein, owner of EXD Engineering in Minden, has been shepherding the statue through the finishing process for almost three years.

The project has endured the death of the donor, a lawsuit filed against the sculptor by Willson's heirs and negotiations with the foundry which was waiting to get paid.

Despite the setbacks, the statue is to arrive from the foundry in Utah on Friday.

"It was a labor of love," Stein said.

Her regret is that Willson died before his gift to the town could be installed.

"Larry and I took to each other instantly, as much as you can without talking to someone," Stein said. "He couldn't speak by the time he and I met. We did everything over the Internet. I have stacks of e-mails from him."

Her last contacts came a month before Willson died.

"He e-mailed me, 'I'm not going to make it,'" Stein said.

She attended the memorial service for the man she never met at the Garden Cemetery in Gardnerville.

"It was very sad," she said. "But this helps make up for it. Getting the statue installed will be joyous."

Willson's tombstone is etched with a pilot heading over the mountains.

His final resting place is just a few yards from a Dangberg family plot.

An idYllic childhood

"Growing up on the Dangberg Ranch there were two things in his life," Stein said. "One was cowboys and the other was flying."

By his own admission, Willson was more of a mechanic than a cowboy.

"He was not a great horseman," she said. "But he made up with it with mechanical stuff.

"He loved to watch the cowboys and listen to them," she said. "He had an idyllic childhood and this statue is his way of giving something back for a great childhood."

Willson's father was ranch foreman for 36 years.

He graduated from Douglas High School in 1970, earned a business degree from the University of Nevada, Reno, and a master's degree from Michigan State University in 1976.

"We kind of grew up together. We went from kindergarten all the way through college together," said Tom Currence of Gardnerville.

Currence and Willson worked together on the Home Ranch.

"I look back on those days when we were kids. Those were the greatest days of our lives. The Valley was real small. Everybody knew everybody. Back then, if you saw somebody on the side of the road, you stopped and helped them out," Currence said.

He and Willson spent as much time as they could on the ranch with the cowboys.

"We both realized what those guys did for a living. It wasn't a weekend-cowboy type of thing. Larry and I both knew we were not going to impress them with our horsemanship. We never tried to compete with those guys. They were the best.

"Larry had a natural ability to fix stuff. Everything seemed to come to him real easy. Larry got to be kind of a friend with all the cowboys, knowing them real personally," he said.

Currence said Willson's inspiration for the statue was twofold: Honoring the ranching lifestyle and teaching newcomers how Carson Valley used to be.

"He wanted to give something back to the Valley that would remind people who were coming here what this Valley was like."

Currence said although Willson lived for 25 years in Southern California, he came back to Carson Valley monthly.

"His heart was here," Currence said.

The will to go on

Currence said Willson knew he wasn't going to live to see the completion of the statue.

"He had a tremendous will to keep going," Currence said. "All his life he took incredibly good care of his body. He didn't drink, he didn't smoke. I think that's why he lived with it as long as he did."

Currence, an American Airlines pilot, was based in Los Angeles and would stay with Willson whose work had taken him to Southern California.

"I would come home and I would almost be crying. It was tearing my heart out. But Larry was such a mechanical guy, he got a wheelchair and got switches hooked up. He did everything he could to make life easier.

"He was very good on the computer and in the end, that was the only way he could communicate was through the computer."

Willson also researched his disease and knew what he faced.

"It's a horrible, horrible disease," Currence said. "What happens is all your muscles in your whole body atrophy down to nothing."

In that capacity, Willson also provided support to Brenda Stein whose sister-in-law had been diagnosed with the same disease.

"He was so willing to answer the most personal questions," Stein said. "It really helped me a lot."

Currence was with Willson when he died.

"He was such a fighter," Currence said. "Even though I wouldn't see him for months, it didn't really matter. It was a friendship that will last forever."

The town plans a dedication closer to Minden's centennial celebration in July.

The statue will bear a plaque that Willson worked out before he died, "dedicated to the men and women of the Dangberg Ranch."

Originally, Willson had hoped to put the statue in Minden Park, but at 131Ú2 feet high, including the pedestal, officials thought the donation would overwhelm the little town park.

Marsha Tomerlin, owner of Itildo Inc., welcomed the statue at the small park she created at the approach where the highways meet.

She sponsored beautification of the site in 1987, when the Department of Transportation widened Highway 395, resulting in the removal of century-old cottonwood trees.

"I think the best place is over here on my park site. It provides a fabulous entry to the community," she said.

Tomerlin never met Willson.

"What a big heart this man must have had and what a gift to this Valley," she said.

Friends of Willson will recognize the rider.

In the months before he died, Willson sent face casts to the sculptor for the equestrian statue he called "End of the Cattle Drive."

The jubilant cowboy waving his hat is Larry Willson, free of the wheelchair and the debilitating disease that took his life.

"It will be there forever," Currence said. "It will remind me of Larry every time I see it."


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