By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — When Rod Larson received a telephone call from a community member saying she thought his son had been in a motorcycle accident, Larson said his first thought was, “How can that be? Michael doesn’t own a motorcycle.”
Larson, whose son Michael was killed August 12, 2014, in a motorcycle accident just north of Colfax on county Highway M, was the keynote speaker at a presentation called “Speak Up to Slow Down” sponsored by the Colfax Rescue Squad April 23 at Colfax High School.
Other speakers included Don Knutson, director of the Colfax Rescue Squad; Deputy Rod Dicus of the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department; and Kyle DeVries of the Wisconsin State Patrol.
Larson said on that day last August, his son Michael had stopped in at Larson’s Ridgeland office around noon to say he was done with work early.
Later that day, they had planned to move Michael to Menomonie because Michael was planning to attend UW-Stout.
Larson said he told his son to go home and begin loading the truck and trailer.
A while later, Larson received a telephone call from a Colfax resident saying she thought Michael had been in a motorcycle accident.
According to a news release from the Dunn County Sheriff’s Department, the accident happened at around 1:48 p.m.
Larson said he arrived at the scene around the same time as his wife, Deb. Police officers, students, parents and EMTs were there as well.
Larson said he asked one of the officers, “What hospital?”
He was told to talk to the Dunn County Medical Examiner.
“Never one time… did I think that Michael did not make it,” Larson said.
When Larson asked the medical examiner about the hospital, the M.E. said, “Nobody told you? He didn’t make it.”
“Talk about a punch in the gut. At that moment, our lives changed forever,” said Larson, who — at times — struggled to keep his voice steady.
As Larson talked, people in the audience were quietly wiping away tears.
Perhaps five or six hours later, Larson said he called the funeral home. The person he spoke to asked if they wanted to bury or cremate Michael.
“It was a tough question. I did not wake up that morning thinking I would have to answer that question,” he said.
Hours in line
Several days later, the visitation for Michael Larson at Sampson Funeral Home started at 2:30 p.m.
The visitation went on until 11 p.m.
People stood in line for two or three hours.
The Colfax High School football team came after practice.
Members of the football team were probably tired and hungry and thirsty, but they stood in line for hours, Larson said.
“And boy, did that mean a lot to us,” he said, adding that he and his wife received a hug from each of the football players and from many of the people who came to the visitation.
The day of Michael Larson’s funeral at Colfax Lutheran, there was hardly a parking space to be found around any of the blocks east of Main Street in Colfax.
Michael’s godmother had lost a daughter 21 years ago and was having an especially difficult time with the funeral, Larson said.
One of the Colfax High School students — who Larson said he would not name — sat next to her through the entire service, held her hand, put his arm around her and helped her down the steps afterwards.
Larson said the students’ actions were typical of the kindness and compassion they had received from the entire community.
“Michael was doing something he should not have done. Sometimes you get away with it — sometimes you don’t,” Larson said.
“Thankfully,” he said, “Michael did not kill or injure anyone else.”
Several times while he talked, Larson noted that he knew many of the Colfax High School students and that he thought of them as his children, too.
Larson said he has a full schedule of events planned for this spring and this summer, including many graduation parties and a couple of fishing trips.
“I am NOT,” he said, “going to any funerals … is that clear?”
Larson paused to let his gaze sweep across the students seated in front of him.
He pulled out two pictures of Michael and held them up.
The Larson family misses Michael very much, he said, “but all we have is pictures.”
Larson went on to urge the students in the audience to think about what they are doing.
He asked them to look at the person sitting next to them. Then he asked them to imagine having to go to that person’s parents and tell them that their son or daughter was dead because of something they had done.
“There are choices, and there are consequences,” he said.
When Larson had finished talking, the gymnasium erupted in vigorous and extended applause.
Larson was the next to the last speaker in the presentation that had been scheduled for an hour but lasted nearly an hour and half.
Colfax High School Principal John Dachel was the last speaker, and for his part of the presentation, held up a neon-pink tee-shirt that had the words “Be Responsible Slow Down” printed on the back.
In fact, by this time, a number of EMTs and law enforcement officers in attendance were wearing the pink tee-shirts. On the front, the shirts said “I am the parent of,” and had room for the names of the wearer’s children to be written in marker.
Dachel said one of the tee-shirts would remain on display in the high school for the rest of the school year as a reminder to students.
And with that, Dachel released the Colfax Middle School and Colfax High School students for lunch.
It appeared that pretty much the entire student body lined up to give Rod Larson a hug on their way out of the gym.
As the students filed past, sometimes two and three at a time would engulf Larson in a hug.
During his presentation, Larson said he is not a public speaker and that for several days in advance, he had been a nervous wreck.
None of that mattered.
Larson’s presentation carried a powerful message and came straight from the heart.
Prior to Larson’s presentation, Knutson talked about how decisions that people make which ultimately cause accidents not only affect the person who is hurt or killed — those decisions affect law enforcement officers, firefighters, EMTs, friends, family, and the entire community.
On the day of the accident, Knutson said that when the EMTs were bringing the person out of the ditch — he did not know the accident victim, but realized that he knew his parents.
“We did everything we could. It was not enough,” Knutson said, his voice breaking.
When it came time for the funeral, Knutson said he could not bring himself to go.
He also could not bring himself to talk to the young man’s parents.
An accident that involves a fatality is hugely difficult for the emergency personnel who respond, Knutson said.
Because of privacy laws, emergency personnel cannot go home and talk to a spouse about what happened, he said.
Talking out the stress and the emotional pain is extremely helpful, however, and that’s why EMTs talk to each other, Knutson said.
By November of last year, Knutson said he still had been unable to bring himself to talk to the victim’s parents.
Then he went to the Veteran’s Day program at Colfax High School, as he does most years.
Knutson said he saw seniors in their National Guard uniforms, and he saw the victim’s father.
“I started crying like a baby,” he said.
By January, which was six months after the accident, Knutson said he was able to say a few words to the father.
“And boy, was that hard,” he said.
Three weeks ago, after Knutson reviewed the video about an accident in Fond du Lac County that involved nine high school girls, three of whom were killed, he called Rod Larson and asked him to speak.
Knutson went on to note that in his time as an EMT, he has had the experience of delivering a baby.
“I have been there at the beginning of life, and I have been there at the last breath,” he said.
Delivering babies is a terrifying experience, Knutson said, but even so, “I would rather deliver babies.”
The presentation at Colfax High School started with a 30-minute video about a Fond du Lac County accident that killed three teenaged girls.
The girls were all members of their high school soccer team. They were having a sleepover party, decided to go out to eat and to toilet paper the house of a friend. On their way home, the driver, who was driving too fast for the road — a straight narrow stretch of road with a series of hills — lost control. The vehicle rolled multiple times and killed three of the passengers.
One of the EMTs who was interviewed about the accident said that the EMTs who responded knew every girl in that vehicle.
“They could have been anybody’s daughter,” he said.
“We could not tell who they were because of all the blood,” he said.
At 7 a.m. the next morning, the EMT said he got a call from one of the mothers of the deceased — who at that point did not know her daughter was dead.
“I knew she was dead. I could not tell (the mother) over the phone that her daughter was dead,” he said.
In the end, the teenaged girl who was the driver was charged with homicide by the negligent use of a motor vehicle and was sentenced to one year of incarceration and ordered to pay $70,000 in restitution.
The judge in the case, said Deputy Rod Dicus — who the students all recognized because he teaches D.A.R.E. classes — went out and drove the stretch of road where the accident happened and said that 40 mph would have been too fast.
One of the girls in the video said that none of the passengers had told the driver to slow down.
They all could have told her, but no one did, she said.
“Don’t be afraid to speak up. It doesn’t make you a wimp,” she said.
Deputy Dicus had the same message.
“Do NOT be afraid to speak up,” he said.
“And do NOT get in a vehicle with someone who has been drinking (or using drugs),” he added.
“Have an out … have a plan,” Deputy Dicus said, noting that the plan could involve calling a parent or calling a friend.
The first crash that Deputy Dicus handled as a young officer involved three girls in a convertible who were going swimming and went around a corner too fast.
“It is not fun to deliver a death message (to parents),” he said.
“Do NOT put me in a situation where I have to come to (an accident) scene. I can say that because I know most of you,” Deputy Dicus said.
State Trooper Kyle DeVries has been with the Wisconsin State Patrol for nine years and works on crash reconstruction.
All vehicles are different, and a difference of weight in a vehicle because of more passengers can change the dynamics of how a vehicle would normally handle, he said.
If a vehicle becomes airborne — and airborne can mean that the tires only come off the road an inch — “if you lose contact (with the road), you’re done,” he said.
While the vehicle is airborne, the driver is still attempting to steer, so when the wheels touch the road again, if they are not straight, it can start the crash sequence, Trooper DeVries said.
Trooper DeVries showed several videos of crash sequences along with the photos of what was left of vehicles after they had crashed.
“Speed doesn’t kill,” he said. “It’s the stop at the end.”
Trooper DeVries urged the students who drove to school to take a look at their tires when they were ready to leave.
The amount of contact with the road — even for big truck tires — is only about the size of an index card, he noted.
The majority of crashes investigated by the State Patrol end up with criminal charges for the driver, and convictions often result in prison time, Trooper DeVries said.
After the presentation at Colfax High School, the participants headed off to present the program at Elk Mound High School.