Peter Larson remembered as true leader

Teacher, principal, woodworker, musician and consummate volunteer: Peter Larson, a man everyone called a natural-born leader, died Monday afternoon at his Homer home. Surrounded by family and music, Larson, 73, died Jan. 20, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, of neuroendocrine carcinoid, a rare form of cancer. Larson had been diagnosed in May of 2013, and became sicker in December.

“His life was just so full,” his wife, Flo Larson, said. “He lived such a good life. He just left us too soon.”

Larson’s resume both professionally and in retirement shows the impact he had on Homer and the Kenai Peninsula. As a teacher, he taught science and math at North Kenai Elementary School and Kenai Junior High School. In the early 1970s, Larson ran the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s environmental education program. 

He later coordinated the gifted program and was director of secondary education. He came to Homer in 1985 to be principal of Homer Middle School. He retired from the school district in 1990 after serving as assistant superintendent of instruction. 

His work in the school district took him all over the peninsula, and he considered the peninsula his home, Flo Larson said.

“We always felt like Kenai was home, Soldotna was home, Seward was home, Homer was home,” she said.

It was in volunteer organizations that Larson made his mark. Whether Kachemak Bay Rotary, AFS, Hospice of Homer, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies or the Kenai Peninsula Choir, Larson jumped in with enthusiasm. He had been a past president of Rotary, was treasurer of AFS and at his death was president of Hospice of Homer.

“He was like a natural born leader,” Flo Larson said. “I just think it’s one of his natural gifts. We’d move somewhere, and the next thing he was president of this organization and that.”

Darlene Hilderbrand, executive director of Hospice of Homer, called him “an absolute pleasure to work with.” 

“He seemed to be able to bring out the best in people,” she said. “It was through an inner strength and an inner kindness of the heart.”

Denice Clyne, a friend and fellow school administrator who met Larson in the early 1980s when they worked at the statewide level in curriculum reform and development, said Larson was “a visionary and always a teacher.”

In Rotary, while Larson served at the district level, he also didn’t shirk from getting his hands dirty. Larson helped weed the Rotary garden at the Homer Public Library, a special project for him, said fellow Rotarian Sharon Minsch.

“He was a perfect example of what Rotarians strive to do,” she said. “Peter lived by example, service above self.”

Heather Beggs, Kachemak Bay Rotary president,  called him a major leader in the club.

“He was always a model for most of our club members,” she said. “He gently guided a lot of our decision making. He was a great mentor to me.”

“It’s a loss to our community and certainly to his family,” said another Rotary friend, Gary Thomas, “He touched a lot of people in a positive way.”

One of his Homer Middle School teachers, Brenda Dolma, remembered how as a principal Larson guided them in implementing a cross-curriculum approach to teaching. They developed an integrated program where teachers communicated together about students and coordinated teaching of subjects.

“Peter listened. Peter would ask and sincerely listen and help you to be your best educator, and allow you to use your skill set to the best of your ability,” Dolma said. “Peter provided me with the opportunity to be my best self, and supported me in my best teaching. I chose to stay in our community because Peter believed in me.”

Born Feb. 2, 1940, in Sioux Falls, S.D., Larson grew up in Mandan, N.D. All four grandparents were Norwegian immigrants, although his grandfather was adopted by Swedes and took the “-son” suffix of the Swedish spelling. 

“He comes from a family of woodworkers and singers. They were all musical,” Flo Larson said. “He played a really wicked clarinet.”

In high school, he played center tackle on the football team and wrestled. Larson met Flo at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, but their paths strayed apart briefly. After graduating with a bachelor of science degree, Larson served in the U.S. Air Force, rising to the rank of captain, and was an electronic warfare navigator on B-52 nuclear bombers. 

“That’s why he loved all the techy stuff,” Flo Larson said. “He loved to read and he loved technology. He loved the gadgets and the computers, the iPads and the iPhones.”

“I consider him always curious,” Clyne said. “If he saw a problem, he never brought it forth without having a well thought-out notion of how it might be solved. He never put his solutions out as the way to solve the problem. He did it invitationally.”

The Air Force wanted Larson to teach at the Air Force Academy. He got reacquainted with Flo while stationed at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., where they were married. They came to Alaska in 1969 shortly after their marriage, first to Kenai and then later to Homer in 1985.

After retiring from the school district in 1989, the Larsons went to the Jakarta International School in Indonesia, where Peter Larson was an administrator and Flo a teacher. They also worked at the Overseas Family School in Singapore and the International School in Kuantan, Malaysia. The Larsons also were active in AFS and Rotary exchange programs, serving as host parents to six AFS students from Chile, Indonesia, Japan, France and Italy and a Rotary student from Brazil. They were hosts to a teacher from Thailand on an AFS educational exchange program.

“There’s flowers and cards coming in from all over the world, because Pete had a global reach,” Flo Larson said.

Larson also worked in rural Alaska, and spent four years each winter at Hooper Bay in the Lower Kuskokwim School District helping students improve test scores.

Flo Larson said her husband was an administrator even in his dying. When he became ill at the end of 2013, Peter Larson did things like write down all the passwords to computer accounts. He wanted to spend one last Thanksgiving with grandchildren in Portland, but made sure Christmas decorations were up before he left. He even sent a letter to his Rotarians letting them know of his dying.

“Up to the very end he orchestrates all this,” Flo Larson said.

Clyne said Larson had a fabulous sense of humor, a quick wit and impeccable ethics. If he said he would do something, he did it, she said.

“I just consider him to be caring, compassionate, empathetic, visionary. He left a huge legacy for us,” Clyne said.

“He was really loved by so many in the community,” Hilderbrand said. “It’s that whole thing about you sow what you reap. He gave so much to the community, and the community loved him back.”

Larson was preceded in death by his father, Arnold Larson. He is survived by his mother, Pearl Larson of Dickinson, N.D.; his sisters, Karen Syvrud, of Kenai, and Susan Larson, of Bismarck, N.D.; brothers, David Larson, of Meridian, Idaho, and Mark Larson, Kenai; son, Erik Larson; son, Bjorn Larson, and daughter-in-law, Sasha Raupp; grandchildren, Finn and Ignatius Raupp-Larson; and many nieces and nephews.

No services are yet planned. Larson was cremated in a simple wooden casket his sons made for him just before his death.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.