MARILYN HAGERTY: Whitey Larson fed birds, took care of his peopleThis past week, with Whitey's apparently sold at auction, has raised questions about the new owner. And it has stirred memories of the man who became a legend among us.
By: Marilyn Hagerty, Grand Forks Herald
Until he sold his business to Greg Stennes and his partners in 1973, Whitey Larson presided over his restaurant in East Grand Forks with its art deco design and horseshoe bar.
He used to pour coffee and ask in his gruff voice, “Is everything all right here, folks?”
This past week, with the restaurant apparently sold at auction, has raised questions about the new owner. And it has stirred memories of the man who became a legend among us.
He died April 17, 1992, at age 86. I sat shortly after his death with his grandchildren. It was at the home of his daughter, Audrey Burfening.
They said Grandpa always fed the birds. He would take them for drives out in the country to see what birds were around. He always parked his car with the back sticking way out on the street. At the restaurant, he would take day-old bread often with garlic flavoring and put it outside for the birds. And even now, there is a bird feeder in his memory at the rural home of his granddaughter Nancy Knox.
Behind his raspy voice and gruff exterior, those who knew Whitey Larson best say he was soft inside.
For years, he went to the horse races at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, where he had his own box. One time, he was made an honorary citizen of Winnipeg. The mayor gave him a key to the city.
Whitey Larson sort of presided over his restaurant. His grandchildren said he would sometimes seat strangers together when the place was crowded. And if he decided you should eat mustard, you would eat mustard.
He never held public office or granted interviews, but Whitey Larson was a force in his community. He was an institution. At the time of his passing, Jim Leigh, a local physician, was among those who called it the end of an era.
Beneath his hard shell, there was a soft center in Whitey Larson. His employees always knew that. When he was retiring, they got together — more than 60 of them — and chipped in on a big white cake shaped like a W. That was in June 1973. And it was at that time, he sold the place, lock, stock and barrel, to Al-Chris Investment Co. of Greater Grand Forks. The new manager and part owner after June 1 that year was Bob Dezotell.
No one knew if Whitey would cotton to the farewell party. He never wanted to be in the limelight. One waitress said, “Whitey’s the kind of guy who always wants to do for others — and he wants nobody to do for him.”
But when called by his employees, Whitey blustered out of the kitchen and asked, “What are we supposed to do? Have some coffee?”
When he spotted Mae Gracie, an employee of 25 years, he went over and gave her a kiss. Then he backed off, commenting, “You sure aren’t getting any thinner.”
That was Whitey. Hard as nails.
Actually, his name was Edwin A. Larson. His employees said he was the kind of man who cared for you when you worked for him. One waitress put it this way: “You feel so secure working at Whitey’s.”
At Christmas time, Whitey would send presents to his employees. One of them was the late Jackie Wong, who later operated his own Shangri-La restaurant with his sons in Grand Forks. He once said, “If you needed money, all you had to do was go to the boss. He treated me like a son.”
My interview with Whitey was brief that day. He didn’t care much for reporters or interviews, and he didn’t like goodbyes.