Sometimes the loss of a person you don’t know that well can affect you as deeply or more as the loss of someone with whom you are closer by blood or love. So it is with the loss Wednesday of Lars Prip. I have been at a loss for the last two days, on the verge of tears for a man I knew, but not well. The thing is, even though we were not close friends, he was a hero to me. The loss of a hero when we are in such desperate need of them is devastating.
Lars was an immigrant to America. He was born in Denmark and moved here when he was a boy. As a young man, he enlisted and served with the Marines in Viet Nam and then reenlisted and served in Iran. He lost a twin brother in Viet Nam. The things he saw there and the loss of his brother affected him deeply and he became an advocate for a more peaceful world. I lost a favorite cousin there and have been a pacifist since.
His obituary mentions lots of things I never knew about Lars and those memories are important for others. It’s amazing how different people can know different parts of a person’s life. What I knew was a man of peace. He was a man who stood for peace and other causes with a ferocity that belied the gentle person who was known for his great hugs and cheerful demeanor. I first met him in 2011 on a bus that was loaded with counter-protesters on the way from Madison to West Allis, Wisconsin where we were going to greet a group of Nazis who had gotten permission to hold a rally. I knew a couple people on that bus but had come by myself just because I felt a need to be there. Lars greeted me with a smile that day and introduced himself.
He was a bit older than me. He was heavier at the time and about my height (meaning not very tall) and had a light beard and moustache. He was carrying a sign (virtually every time I saw him he had a sign of some sort) and was wearing a hat festooned with buttons about peace and justice. Something about him appealed to me immediately. There was a warmth and a genuineness about him that I liked.
For the next eight years I kept bumping into him whenever there was a rally against another war or possible war, whenever there was a march for peace or some other just cause, whenever there was a memorial for another person or group of people lost to gun violence. I would see him at protests against Scott Walker’s assault on Wisconsin workers or rallies for civil rights. He would be there at the weekly Farmers’ Market where he and his Veterans for Peace friends–especially another man I admire, David Soumis–would stand week after week to advocate against war. He also held a regular vigil in Beloit, Wisconsin as well.
He was often verbally assaulted when he did these things, attacked as anti-American for promoting peace. The irony of that is inescapable. But he would not attack back. He would gently express his viewpoint. Lars believed that peace was the only way to save humanity. He believed that advocating for peace made him a better American and a better citizen of the world. He had seen the horrors of war and did not want that for his children or grandchildren–or for anyone’s children or grandchildren.
Seeing Lars was always a highlight of any day. He made everyone feel special and he did everything he did because he loved people deeply. His love was real and if you were in any part of his world, your world was brighter and better because of it. It will be a lot dimmer now, though I believe his legacy will be honored by others who will continue his work for peace. Already this week a number of people gathered on his usual corner in Beloit to hold signs for peace in his honor and more are planning on doing that at Farmer’s Market this weekend. He will be long remembered, his work will continue through others, and hopefully he has found peace at last.