He changed Vermillion’s culture with his master bread baking skills and his love for getting from one place to the other in town on his Cartrike recumbent bicycle.
He brought awareness for the need for better treatment and efforts to seek a cure for Parkinson’s disease as he battled the nervous system disorder by riding that bicycle 300 miles across South Dakota. His efforts were recorded in a documentary, “Ride With Larry.”
He showed people, through his own actions, how to persevere, how to share one’s gifts and how to love life.
Larry Smith died June 25 at Ava House hospice in Sioux Falls from health problems not related to the Parkinson’s disease that he battled for 28 years.
“Larry had a major GI bleed over a period of days that was difficult to treat because of his other health problems. After a day in ICU where he suffered greatly, we elected to pursue only palliative care,” his wife, Elizabeth “Betty” Smith, wrote in a June 21 Caring Bridge message to inform people of his declining health. “He is now at Ava House Hospice in Sioux Falls and his days will be short.”
She informed people of her husband’s death on June 25.
“Larry finished his last ride just before dawn this morning. I had awakened about half an hour before and walked over to his bedside, gave him a hug, held his hand, and talked to him quietly. His breathing was uneven but he looked comfortable and relaxed. He squeezed my hand tightly, took one last breath, and died peacefully,” Betty wrote, adding, “I am so grateful for the nearly 50 years we shared and for all the adventures we had together. I’m also grateful for the support and love of our fabulous family and friends. Thank you! We have been greatly blessed.
“If you are a person with Parkinson's, please join me in celebrating a life well lived, not a death to be mourned,” she wrote. “Larry was cycling on a stationary recumbent until his last illness, which was not caused by Parkinson’s. He always said that PD was not a death sentence but a way of life.”
Betty asks that, in lieu of flowers, people contribute to Recycle 605, a nonprofit that provides bikes to kids and disabled people in Vermillion and the surrounding area. They are planning a pocket park in downtown Vermillion focused on cycling in honor of Larry.
“His vision lives on,” she states.
Mr. Smith’s Is Born
Larry, a 26-year veteran of the Hamden Police Department of Hamden, Connecticut, had retired from law enforcement a few years after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s. He and Betty made Vermillion their home in 1998 after she joined the faculty of the University of South Dakota as a political science professor.
Larry was soon at Jones’ Food Center, baking bread that was used for sandwiches for Little King, a small eatery in the store. The quality of his baking and the unique tastes he brought to the community led to the creation of Mr. Smith’s, a small cafe within the store, named after Larry.
“It was sad news when we heard of Larry’s death,” said Gregg Peters, who owned Jones’ Food Center with his wife, Nikki. He said he first became aware of Larry’s baking talents when he learned he was making bread for a coffee shop that was located in the downtown building that now houses Cafe Brule.
“We were in the need of a baker and we reached out to him,” he said. “We talked with him and we hired Jacq Johns as well to be his assistant.”
Not long after Larry was hired, Gregg, Nikki, and Jim Waters sat down with Larry and decided to launch Mr. Smith’s.
“We asked Larry if it was okay to name it after him,” Gregg said, “and that’s how it got its name.”
At the time, he didn’t know that he had hired someone who was much more than a talented baker.
“In my lifetime, I’ve met very few people that make me want to be a better person.” he said. “I would say that Larry is one of a few people that I’ve ever met that have left that kind of impression on me.
“He is probably the nicest person that I’ve ever met,” Peters said. “His legacy will live long past his passing. I really don’t have the words to articulate what he meant to me personally … his overall being -- he was just an amazing person.”
Jones’ Food Store is no longer in operation. The Peterses now operate Jones’ Hardware in the building, but Mr. Smith’s and a small bakery remain. The small eatery serves a variety of sandwiches featuring in-store baked breads from the recipes Larry brought to Vermillion. Many of those breads are offered for sale on a few shelves located not far from Mr. Smith’s front counter.
Jacq Johns, now of Sioux Falls, lived in Vermillion in the 1990s and worked with Larry for a decade as a bread baker at Jones' Food Market and for Mr. Smith’s. At that time, the effects of Parkinson’s disease were barely noticeable, she remembers, as he introduced his bread baking talents to the community.
“In the beginning, we really did a lot,” she said. “We really were on a roll there for a while.”
Larry’s bread soon gained a reputation far beyond the boundaries of Vermillion. It was featured in “Oprah” magazine in the fall of 2002.
“The best bread in the world is not in Paris. It's not in San Francisco, and it's not being made in some chic little bakery–art gallery in SoHo, either,” wrote Amy Bloom in an article for the magazine with the headline ‘Meet The Eighth Wonder Of The Baking World.’
The best bread in the world is waiting for you right at the front of Jones' Food Center in Vermillion, South Dakota, she wrote, adding, “Real Vermillionites don't go in for such hyperbole. They just line up at noon to buy Larry Smith’s bread as soon as it comes out of the oven, and they have been known to offer to help bag the loaves to speed up the process. When I walk through downtown Vermillion by myself, it seems like a nice enough place; when I walk with Larry, people express such warmth and gratitude; it's as if I've found the sunny side of the street. After a few days in the bakery, I begin to think that the best bread in the world is not just a good thing, but a healing and ecstatic thing.”
“In the beginning, it was just Larry and me and it just grew so much,” Jacq said.
She soon learned that Larry was much more than a baker.
“He was incredibly smart and he had a law enforcement background,” Jacq said. “He said that he got some grief for being a smart cop, but he was such a tender heart and truly cared about people. He was very genuine and he always had time for others. People would stop back and want to meet with Mr. Smith and talk with him and he was just very easy-going and gentle.
“He was a great teacher for me,” she said. “He really taught me everything that I knew about bread baking, even though my grandfather was a master baker in Amsterdam and that’s how he got over to the States, so it was in my blood.”
With Larry, Jacq experienced and learned how to accomplish high quality, from scratch baking.
A Dear Friend
“He became such a dear friend,” she said, fighting emotions during her phone conversation. “He was already a friend, but it went to a whole different level when you work side-by-side, especially, I think, doing something creative.
“We always felt that, he and I,” Jacq said. “We made bread for love. We truly did, and felt it.”
The two discovered they had other shared loves. They often listened to NPR over the radio while working. They also loved the same types of music and would bring in their own CDs to play.
“It was really like our own, special world,” Jacq said of the bakery workspace that also had employees of a variety of ages, including the Smiths’ daughter for a time and several local student workers. “We both especially loved being able to work with all of these different age groups.”
Her own family at the time included an infant and teenage kids.
“We both wanted to know these people and their likes and what music they were into,” she said. “He really, truly connected with all of these different ages. When college kids want to spend their Friday or Saturday night at a dinner party at the boss’s house, that says a lot about that person … you always knew there was going to be good food, good drink, good laughs. It was just really, really wonderful.
“We just all connected and we all brought something into that, but really it was Larry who, I think, brought people together,” Jacq said. “He was something else.”
Larry, she said, “made me focus more on living your day-to-day and getting your most out of that day. I know it was important for him … to get the most out of each day with the people you were with and that you can bring joy to. I do think about that a lot when I’m not perhaps as thankful as I should be. When I remind myself to make the most out of each day, it’s always because of him.”
Jim Waters and Monica Iverson both had an opportunity to work with Larry and witness his talents and inspiring personality first hand. At about the time that Larry decided to retire from baking, Jim and Monica took on a new venture and together opened Cafe Brule in downtown Vermillion.
Approximately three years ago, the two teamed up to open a second restaurant, Dakota Brick House, which also can be described as a gastropub. It is located in the heart of downtown Vermillion.
“It’s a sad time,” Jim said. “Larry was such an inspiration to so many people. I was proud to be his friend. I was proud that he was one of my mentors and I learned a lot from him.”
Jim was the meat manager at Jones’ Food Store in the late 1990s when Larry began baking there.
Monica was operating Cakes By Monica out of her own commercial kitchen and four days a week at Jones’ Food Center on a commission basis. She also supervised the store’s bakery.
Over time, the effect of Parkinson’s disease had a greater effect on Larry’s day-to-day life. Tremors are common with the disease, causing stiffness and slowing of movement. Eventually, it affected his ability to speak clearly.
“He had to work twice as hard as anyone else, but he never considered it work,” Jim said. “He loved what he was doing. With Parkinson's … it was laborious, but he never complained. He just always did what he loved to do.
“That’s my greatest impression of Larry -- he just took what was given to him and he did the best with it,” he said. “He was a fighter.”
Jim remembers how Larry came to work every day with a new pun and a new joke to share.
“He was compassionate, he was caring and whenever I saw him, I’d always light up and whenever he saw me, he’d always light up,” he said. “No matter what was going on, he was always positive.”
When the decision was made by the Peterses to open Mr. Smith’s in Jones’ Food Market, Jim made a strong pitch to manage the new eatery.
“I always worked super hard because I always wanted Larry to be proud and I always wanted to be sure that I was doing everything up to his name,” he said. “At that time, we really grew the business when I moved in there and having his breads to utilize.”
Jim said that he made the most of the opportunity to work with Larry and learn his techniques at bread making.
“He embraced it (bread making) and loved it and he figured it out,” he said, adding that it was an interesting experience to bring an artisan baker like Larry into a commercial baking situation.
“It brought a whole different menu into Vermillion that wasn’t there before,” Jim said.
Parkinson's disease advanced over time, but Larry never complained.
“He would just go ahead and do the work, no matter how hard he was fighting his body that day,” Jim said. “I think maybe some of that precision work helped him -- using the muscles and forcing the muscles to do what he wanted them to do in order to do what he needed them to do.
“With the bread making and the bicycling -- that’s what helped him battle that for such a long time,” he said. “Larry was an amazing guy. I know he made me a better baker. And, he made me a better person.”
Monica remembers the efforts of Jim and Larry, working closely together to develop the menu of Mr. Smith’s. Larry’s freshly-baked baguettes would fly off the shelves of Jones’ Food Market but his abilities were too broad to define just one type of bread as his specialty.
“He made focaccia and ciabatta and the best brioche bread I’ve ever had,” she said. “He was just very talented. He was a great cook, too.”
Those breads were introduced to Mr. Smith’s and today they also are part of Cafe Brule’s menu.
“We use focaccia for our muffalata sandwiches and brioche for our salmon, lettuce and tomato,” Monica said. “All of those recipes are from Larry. It’s a mainstay for us and it always will be as long as I’m here and Jim’s here.”
Larry, she said, was a ray of sunshine.
“I know it may sound super corny, but when he would walk into a room, he was always in a good mood,” Monica said. “Every time he came to work, you always received a ‘good morning, how ya doing?’ He always had something positive to say -- maybe a light-hearted joke.”
She remembers how he would play calming music and fix espresso for everyone on the espresso machine in the back of the bakery.
“He was always interested in your life; he was genuinely interested in what was going on with you,” Monica said. “He was someone you always wanted to be around.”
Parkinson’s disease, she said, never diminished Larry’s essence.
“He found new things to do, new fights to fight, new passions to pursue,” Monica said.
She remembers how he and Betty would often come in to have breakfast at Mr. Smith’s until the disease made those trips too difficult for him.
“He would talk with Jim and me,” Monica said with a sigh. “It’s hard. We miss him. He was a good man, a really good man and he touched so many lives.”