Larry Aasen — one of Westport’s oldest, most beloved residents, and a man who with his late wife Martha contributed immeasurably to the town in countless ways — died this morning at Norwalk Hospital. He was 99 years old.
Martha died in October 2020, age 90. An improbable couple — he was from North Dakota; she was from Mississippi — they prodded and nurtured this town, both politically and civically. They moved here in 1963, and lived here until their deaths.
The family will issue a more complete obituary soon, along with information on memorial donations. A memorial service will be held this spring. They request that no flowers or gifts be sent to the Aasen residence.
In 2018 — when Larry served as grand marshal of the Memorial Day parade — I wrote this:
“This is incredible. I’m 95. At my age, you don’t get many awards.”
That’s Larry Aasen’s reaction to being named grand marshal of the 2018 Memorial Day parade.
The World War II airborne sergeant — and 55-year Westport resident — will ride the route from Riverside Avenue down the Post Road, and up Myrtle Avenue to Veterans Green, on Monday, May 28. There, he’ll give the keynote address.
Aasen — and many other Westporters — hope the 3rd time’s the charm. The 2 previous Memorial Day parades have been canceled due to weather. The grand marshals delivered their addresses in the Town Hall auditorium.
Aasen has a lot to talk about.
He was born in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.
Aasen rose to sergeant in the 13th Airborne. After training in North Carolina, he was sent to France. His division had 20-person gliders, with no protection. The mission was to drop behind enemy lines, and destroy anything of value. Gliders had a 70% casualty rate, Aasen says.
His job was cryptographer, encoding and decoding secret messages. He had a security clearance from the FBI.
After his discharge in 1946, Aasen earned a journalism degree from the University of North Dakota. He headed east, for a master’s at Boston University.
Aasen moved to New York, “to seek my fortune.” He spent 14 years with New York Life Insurance, rising to vice president of public relations, then 20 years with the Better Vision Institute on campaigns urging Americans to get their eyes checked. Aasen worked with Bob Hope, Muhammad Ali and other celebrities on those projects. (He’s also met 6 US presidents.)
In 1963, he, his wife Martha and their young children moved to Westport. “We needed more room than a New York apartment,” he explains. “There were a lot of media people here, and they loved it.”
He and Martha live in the same Ellery Lane house they bought over half a century ago. He calls it “the best investment we ever made.”
Aasen served 17 years on the Representative Town Meeting (RTM). His other volunteer activities include the Democratic Town Committee, Y’s Men, Rotary Club and Saugatuck Congregational Church.
Larry and Martha Aasen have not missed a Memorial Day parade in 54 years. This year, he’ll have a special role in it.
A well-deserved honor for one of Westport’s favorite 95-year-olds.
There’s this story too, from when Larry turned 95 years young in 2017:
On December 5, Larry Aasen turns 95 years young.
As the big day nears, he’s going through scrapbooks and albums. Recently, in the Ellery Lane home he and his wife Martha have lived in for 54 years, Aasen recalled some intriguing stories.
He was born in 1922, in a log cabin in the middle of a North Dakota snowstorm. There was no electricity, running water, central heating — not even a bathroom.
When he got to New York City in 1949, he heard about a Times Square “gag writers school.” The $5 tuition was put into a hat, at the beginning of class.
Aasen went on to work for the Better Vision Institute. Its mission was to encourage regular eye exams.
The organization used celebrities in its ads. Because he had eye problems, Bob Hope did radio and TV ads for free. Toward the end of the comedian’s career, Aasen did a fundraiser with him in Miami. He was tired and weak. But when the spotlight hit him, he did a jig, picked up his violin and performed well.
One day, a friend gave Aasen Muhammad Ali’s phone number. Aasen told the boxing champ the BVI wanted to use his photo on a poster. Ali, however, was more concerned about how Aasen had gotten his number.
Aasen explained that the poster would read, “Your fists can’t hit what your eyes can’t see!” Ali yelled “Okay!” — then slammed down the receiver.
Aasen and his wife are political junkies. In his long life, he’s met 6 presidents.
In 1950, while working as a writer/photographer for the Journal of Accountancy in New York, he was assigned to take photos of CPAs at the Waldorf Astoria. Hurrying over, he knocked down a frail old man. When he got up, Herbert Hoover gave Aasen a stern look and said, “Watch where you are going!”
Five years later, in Kansas City, Aasen learned where Harry Truman parked his car for his daily walk to work. Sure enough, at 8:15 a.m. he drove up.
It was snowing hard. The former president was all alone. Aasen asked if he could walk along. Truman smiled, and asked Aasen where he was from.
He said North Dakota, and that his wife was from Mississippi. The two men talked about those states’ senators, as well as the Hayes/Tilden “stolen” election of 1876. Then, after a firm handshake, Truman bounded up the office steps.
In 1960, Martha’s father was a Mississippi delegate to the Democratic convention. The state shared a “very poor hotel” with the Wyoming delegation. Though they were small, and seemingly unimportant at the end of the roll call, candidate John F. Kennedy arrived at the hotel to meet them.
Kennedy jumped out of a car, and shook Aasen’s hand. That night, Wyoming’s votes gave Kennedy the Democratic nomination for president.
Ronald Reagan, Aasen says, was even better looking than his photos. Martha and he first met him at a motel in San Mateo in 1963, after a Rotary speech. The actor invited a group to his suite. He told jokes, in a disarming way.
The Aasens saw Reagan other times too, when he promoted the “GE Theater Show.”
In 1975, Aasen was in Atlanta. Jimmy Carter walked down a hotel hall, put out his hand, introduced himself and said he was running for president. He invited Aasen to a speech.
That night he spoke quietly, describing his plans for the country. Aasen thought it was too bad that such a “intelligent, decent man” might never be president. Of course, he laughs, “Carter didn’t know that.”
Bill and Hillary Clinton visited Westport often, usually to meet donors. Aasen says he often forgets how tall the president is, and how he is “always in motion. He has that skill of connecting with his audience — and he will not let them go.” Clinton loves to talk — “which is why he is always late.”
As for Barack Obama: Once, leaving a stage, he posed for a photo with the Aasens. “Let’s put the rose between the 2 thorns,” Obama suggested.
Happy upcoming 95th birthday, Larry Aasen. Here’s hoping you meet many more presidents — and have many more stories — in the years to come.
And this, from June of 2019 … because as much as Larry Aasen loved Westport, he never forgot his North Dakota roots.
Larry Aasen has just written his 4th book about North Dakota.
That may be a world record.
“Very few people write books about North Dakota,” the Peace Garden State native and longtime Westporter says modestly.
“Then again, very few people live in North Dakota, period.”
At 96 years old, Aasen still has all his wits — and his wit.
So I should note here: Very few 96-year-olds write books, period.
Aasen’s oeuvre includes “North Dakota 100 Years Ago,” “Images of North Dakota” and “North Dakota Postcards 1900-1930.” The postcards are fascinating — some are from his parents’ collection (they corresponded that way when they were courting, and lived 30 miles apart) — and so are the photos his mother took using a new-fangled camera (they were sent to Minneapolis to be developed, and arrived back 3 weeks later).
His latest book — “North Dakotans Never Give Up” — goes beyond images, postcards and history. It’s a personal memoir, weaving together Aasen’s youth in the still-pioneer state with the inspiring story of residents who overcame great adversity, and achieved big things.
(Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Welk and Peggy Lee, to name 3.)
“The Depression was a terrible time,” Aasen says of his youth. “Many young people in North Dakota today have no idea. There were grasshoppers, drought — you name it.”
Those North Dakotans who never gave up survived by raising cows, turkeys, chickens and pigs. They made their own food. They built chairs and benches out of wood they chopped. They were self-sufficient. They had to be.
“Winters were tough,” he says. “Kids really did walk to school in the snow.”
He was one of those kids. And he’d go to school after milking cows. “We smelled. The town kids teased us,” he recalls.
Aasen’s grandparents were certainly tough. All 4 lived into their 80s. Their stories form an important part of the new book.
“Weak people died,” Aasen says. His grandparents never went to the hospital. They didn’t even have medical care.
“It cost $1 for the doctor to come to the farm. That was too expensive.” He doesn’t remember ever seeing medicine in the house — “except maybe cough syrup.”
His mother kept a diary, which he still has. “She would talk about whatever happened that day,” Aasen says. “‘Today an airplane flew over the farm.’ ‘We butchered a pig.’ ‘Hoover was elected president.’ There were a lot of bank robberies too.”
Aasen is an assiduous researcher. He spent 9 months writing the most recent volume — and did all the layout too. (His son-in-law got it copy-ready.)
“I’m 96, but I’m too busy to be a senior citizen,” Aasen — whose Mississippi-born wife Martha, 89, is equally active — says.
Aasen’s books sell well — and all over the country. They’re bought by libraries, universities, people who live in North Dakota, and those who have left.
They’re reviewed regularly in publications like the Bismarck Tribune, Grand Forks Herald and Forum of Fargo.
Aasen promotes his books himself, partly through direct mail. After 4 volumes, he’s built up a robust mailing list. (Robust by North Dakota standards, anyway.)
He used to go back every year. His trips now are less frequent.
“I had 31 cousins there. Now there’s 1,” Aasen says. “My classmates, my Army mates — they’re all gone.”
Larry and Martha Aasen moved to Westport in 1963. They’ve been involved in town life — too many activities to count — ever since.
But nearly 6 decades later — after nearly a century on the planet — Larry Aasen still loves his home state. And he’s proud to honor the people he grew up with there.
“A lot of people today, if they can’t get a job they sit around feeling sorry for themselves,” he says.
“In North Dakota, you couldn’t do that. You’d starve.
“You had to be tough, and figure things out.”
Like his book title says: North Dakotans Never Give Up.