Devlyn Brooks: A mentor and a friend
Sometimes heroes don’t wear capes, Spandex costumes or athletic uniforms.
Sometimes they come simply dressed in a button-up dress shirt, jeans and a pair of big, ol’ Sorels.
Instead of sneaking around in the dead of night, taking criminals off the street, they work in the light of day, quietly exposing wrongs and celebrating the best of humanity, just going about their job out of the spotlight.
On a weekend during which the nation was busy glamorizing its athletic heroes on the football field, I was devastated to hear the news that I lost a friend, somebody truly deserving of the title “hero.”
My hero was an unassuming, 52-year-old journalist, with school boy looks and a disposition that could charm the most hostile of interviewees. And it was my good fortune to call my hero and Star Tribune reporter Larry Oakes my friend for the past 20 years.
This unlikely friendship was struck thanks to a college assignment in which I was to shadow a working journalist and report about it. Trying to be unlike the rest of the class, who almost all chose local journalists just to quickly get the assignment done, I chose to ask Larry if I could travel to Duluth and shadow him for a day. He said yes.
On the day I arrived, we trekked another three hours north to interview a Border Patrol official about some policy that was being enacted. I forget what the issue was, but it placed a burden on everyday northern Minnesota folks, and Larry smelled a story.
What I witnessed for two hours in a cramped, lifeless government office on the edge of the country was nothing less than transformational. I witnessed a journalist, dressed in everyman’s clothes, who worked an interview with a hostile and defensive interviewee like a master. And never once did Larry become forceful, aggressive or impolite. He merely pounded the bureaucrat with clear, precise questions and an unmatchable sincerity and respect for the man he was interviewing.
Larry walked out of the interview with all of his questions answered and a new admirer at his side.
Our relationship deepened over the years. In the beginning, I turned to Larry often looking for career advice or just to ask a question about a difficult story I was working. I respected his journalistic knowledge, and to this day, I know of no Minnesota journalist that could match the beauty of his prose. As a mentor, he was a young journalist’s dream.
Eventually, Larry’s respect for my own career grew. He was like that; despite the wide gap in accomplishments, Larry was always there to congratulate me on an award won or a new job earned. And, most incredibly, he made me feel like an equal.
And our conversations also became personal. As I grew older, my life’s ups and downs eerily mirrored many of his, and he served as a sounding board and a stabilizer.
In recent years, geography and busy lives took their toll on our connectivity. We talked less and less on the phone, and more and more through digital means. But I wasn’t less thankful for the times we connected.
Our most recent conversation at the end of November revolved around journalism, as so many of our conversations did. I wrote to congratulate him on a story about a Bemidji, Minn., grocer that was giving over his multi-million-dollar business to his employees. The story caught fire and ricocheted around the world. And my friend Larry wrote it. I was proud of him, proud that he received the worldwide recognition for a story that was so symbolic of his life’s work, always celebrating the little guy, the things that reaffirm our faith in humanity.
Then word came this weekend that my friend, mentor and colleague, Larry died by suicide. The news devastated me, partly because it was so unexpected, but also because I was unaware of his years-long battle with depression.
Aside from the grief over losing a longtime friend and the prayers I said for his family, the news this weekend made me very reflective of what it truly means to be a hero and how tragic it is that most of our children’s role models are so undeserving of the attention.
Larry and I had often talked about getting together. It had been a long time since we had shared a beer over the same table, and I really wanted him to see my kids who had grown so much since the last meeting. But distance and hectic schedules unfortunately got in the way one too many times.
And now I regret never having made the time to give my children the chance to meet one of my heroes, a true-to-life decent man who worked hard to improve the lives of those who lived on the fringes of society or just simply didn’t have a voice.
And I also regret never having informed Larry of just how important his friendship was to me. I never told him he was my hero.
However, I have vowed that I will not pass up the opportunity to teach my kids about Larry, and one day show them the work he did, work that transformed another young man from northern Minnesota with big time journalistic dreams in his head.
I don’t think there is a more important lesson about heroism could I impart on my children.
And I can’t think of a greater tribute to my friend and hero.
Devlyn Brooks is an employee of Forum Communications Co. He graduated from Bemidji State University in 1997 and worked as a reporter and copy editor at the Pioneer from 1995 to 2002.