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December will have a little less zest without generous 'Santa Larry'

Larry Zea enjoyed opera, flying, hunting, fishing and raising Scottish Highland cattle. For many years the jolly, white-bearded man became Santa Claus, working at shopping malls in Bemidji, Mankato and suburban Chicago. He marched with the U.S. Navy Band in President Kennedy’s funeral procession. But friends and family will remember Zea, who died Nov. 12 at age 84, for his generosity and zest for life.

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Larry Zea, a former member of the U.S. Navy Band, remembers being part of the procession for President John Kennedy's funeral on Nov. 25, 1963, in Washington, D.C. Zea died on Nov. 12 at the age of 84. (Pioneer file photo)
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BLACKDUCK, Minn. -- Larry Zea was a giver.

Whether he was handing out candy to kids, delighting youngsters as Santa Claus, buying snacks for athletes and cheerleaders, or just showing up to show his support for Blackduck, Minnesota, teams, musicians and drama students, the larger-than-life Zea gave way more than he received.

Zea died on Nov. 12 at his home at age 84.

“I could write a book about Larry,” said neighbor Jo Clayton. “Besides being just a really nice man, he welcomed everybody into the community. You didn’t have to be here very long before you knew who Larry Zea was. That’s because of his involvement in the community.”

“It’s hard to imagine a world without him in it,” added Jo’s daughter, Laurie Reiplinger. “If I were to get up and speak at his service, I could honestly talk for two hours and barely touch what he just meant to me. And I wasn’t alone. You’re just blessed that you got to know him.”

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Former Blackduck High School wrestling coach Steve Bechtold certainly got to know Larry Zea.

“When I first came to Blackduck I was a junior high football coach,” Bechtold said. “Larry would come to games, and he introduced himself to me. He invited me out to his home within the first month I was there and basically adopted me.”

The two men formed a close friendship, and Larry became part of the wrestling program as the PA announcer for many years. Larry and his wife, Pat, also made regular road trips with the team.

“He and Pat would drive cheerleaders to the away wrestling matches for about 15 years,” Bechtold said. “At the tournaments, he would basically provide meal money for anybody who didn’t have it. The kids would hit him up all the time to borrow $5, and of course, he never saw it back. I know he stopped and fed the cheerleaders on the way home. They always got a snack on the way home. I’m guessing every time we went to a tournament it cost him about $100.”

Bechtold said generosity is the word that describes Larry the best.

“What first comes to mind? How generous he was with his time,” Bechtold said. "He gave so much to that school, all the athletic and music activities and drama. He was at everything. He surely had a zest for life. I will just miss his presence. Somebody you knew was always going to be there.”

Zea certainly had a zest for life. He enjoyed opera, flying, hunting, fishing and raising Scottish Highland cattle. For many years the jolly, white-bearded man became Santa Claus, working at shopping malls in Bemidji, Mankato and suburban Chicago. But for his family and neighbors, he was Grandpa Santa or Santa Larry.

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Larry Zea was Santa Claus at Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Mall for many years. He's pictured here with Hannah Reiplinger, left, and Reagan Frenzel of Blackduck in 2014. (Contributed / Laurie Reiplinger)

“When my grandson broke his leg when he was just tiny, Santa Larry came over to the house and sang songs with Luke,” Clayton said. “We would have neighborhood get-togethers and he would be on the roof, in his complete Santa suit, with bells. All for the kids. When our grandkids got old enough to where they knew it was Larry, they didn’t care. It was Santa Larry.”

From 1956 to 1970, Zea was a member of the U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters. He performed at the White House for presidents Eisenhower through Nixon. He marched with the U.S. Navy Band in President Kennedy’s funeral procession.

That was all before he and Pat moved to the south shore of Pimushe Lake in Beltrami County in 1970. Larry taught flying lessons and flew charters at Bemidji Aviation, then started Kimball Music and Furniture in Blackduck, and later started Insurance Services North in Blackduck. He also ran a roller rink for a few years in Blackduck.

In 1987 Zea started raising and showing Scottish Highland cattle. He eventually had three national champion cattle.

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Larry Zea, right, began raising and showing Scottish Highland cattle in 1987. With him in this 1993 photo are, from left: his wife Pat Zea, Erica Fairbanks and Laurie Reiplinger. (Contributed / Laurie Reiplinger)

Reiplinger was a high school student when she started working with Zea and the Scottish Highlands. They were neighbors in the Pimushe area.

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“He helped my daughter, incorporating her with his cattle and taking her to national shows,” Clayton said. "We don’t live on a farm. We’ve never had cattle. So his mentorship is probably one of the things that I’ll remember him most for. We’ll all have memories of Larry forever.”

Zea gave Laurie a Scottish Highland heifer as a graduation present. “Then he bought it from me,” Reiplinger said. “That’s Larry. He was honestly a second grandparent to me. People thought I was his granddaughter, actually. We traveled so much together. We just let them think it. I was out there every weekend and at night after school working with the cattle.”

Clayton said the community is a better place because of Larry Zea.

“Larry will never be forgotten because there will always be something that will remind you of him,” she said. “And you smile when you remember it. We just loved Larry.”

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Larry Zea was Santa Claus at Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Mall for many years. He's pictured here with Hannah Reiplinger, left, and Reagan Frenzel of Blackduck in 2014. (Contributed / Laurie Reiplinger)

Related Topics: PEOPLEBLACKDUCKFAMILY
Dennis Doeden, former publisher of the Bemidji Pioneer, is a feature reporter. He is a graduate of Metropolitan State University with a degree in Communications Management.
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