Larry met Donna on a blind date in 1973—”Well, it wasn’t a blind date for me but it was for her,” he says. They were together ever since.
When Donna’s sickness took a turn for the worst, her husband Larry wrote a song.
Our culture has created many ways to remember a loved one. There are memorials, and markers, and flowers with a thousand shades of color, but as much as music plays a role in any relationship, for a non-musician to put one’s love to music as they lie sick and dying is not all that common.
Larry Anspach is the co-founder of Funeralwise.com, and as his wife Donna’s cancer progressed he recalled an idea he had seen on the television show Shark Tank about a company that allows anyone to send their own lyrics to an established musician who turns them into unique songs. “I thought it might be something pretty cool,” says Larry.
But how does one put a relationship that spanned 50 years into just a few stanzas? Larry wrote down words and sent them to the Chattanooga, Tennessee-based company, Songlorious, and they linked him up with a musician named Lance from San Francisco. People tend to use the site for occasions like an anniversary or a wedding, not to mark a death. But Larry is never one to follow the norms, and he wanted to do something truly special for Donna.
They met at Indiana University, in Bloomington, just before spring break of senior year. On their first date they went to get drinks and Larry ordered what he recalls as “something sour, with an umbrella, and she got a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks.” The waiter brought the drinks to the opposite people, presumably thinking it was the man who had ordered the whiskey and the woman who had ordered the sour drink. “She must have been like, who is this guy ordering a drink like that!?” says Larry. But clearly, it didn’t dissuade Donna, the couple was married several years later in a ceremony in Larry’s parent’s backyard, in Highland Park, on the north side of Chicago. And when it comes down to it, Larry is certainly not the shy teetotaler his drink choice might make him seem to be.
In 1969, during the height of the Vietnam War and his first year at Indiana, Larry protested the war by barricading the door of the administration building shut with a bicycle lock. He got arrested and suspended from school. While his life could have gone in a million different directions at that point, Larry spent a semester at sea with a unique program called World Campus Afloat. The ship carried a troupe of students around the world on an immersive educational experience. Perhaps it was these multicultural experiences abroad that helped Larry to understand Donna, who came from a conservative part of Indiana and a very different background. Or, perhaps his ability to love and understand her was born into him.
But Larry was always a risk-taker, and open to trying something new. He has spent his career in the funeral industry, and on October 15, 1986 was even featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for his use of unconventional promotional events to attract business to Cedar Park Cemetery, the cemetery he ran on the south side of Chicago. The funeral industry has numerous ways to remember the dead that involve some form of performance or even song, and Funeralwise has written about many of them, from the tradition of paying people to cry and wail at funerals, referred to as hired mourners (People Are Dying, No One Is Crying), to the tradition popular across parts of Taiwan and China of pole-dancing during funeral processions (Inside the Hot and Noisy World of Taiwan’s Stripper Funerals), to the beauty and complexities of funerary music (Funeral Music Sets the Tone and Honors the Deceased). But given all of these different ways of remembering the deceased through music, there is still nothing quite like what Larry did for Donna, in writing her a song.
At the beginning of a fine day in early February, Donna saw the sun rising over the city of Las Vegas into a sharp blue sky. “We like to camp, hike, ski and so we ended up here,” says Larry. “Las Vegas was perfect, just 700,000 people, three hours to the ocean, two hours to Zion and a zillion other parks.” The couple raised two daughters there, Annie and Lauren. And then came the grandkids, Jordyn, Shawn, and Jax, who were to give Donna so much joy. By the end of that early February day, Donna had passed.
The song that Larry wrote for her is called “Sweet Donna.” While it speaks directly to his love for her, the song also speaks for others, as there are millions of people out there who have lost their spouses or loved ones too early to cancer. “I never wanted your suffering to go on so long,” reads Donna’s song. Maybe there will be a day when our doctors and researchers can crack the complexities of cancer, and treat it without the tools of today, which can seem so barbaric and exhausting, even if they do sometimes lead to miracles. But we have not arrived at that day yet. For now, we reconcile with losing our loved ones before their time. And when they pass, or even as they pass, we try and do something sweet and memorable. Larry wrote a song.
Digital Dying recently sat down with Larry to learn more about this idea, and his life together with the woman for whom he wrote the song—Donna.
How did you meet Donna?
We met as a blind date. Well, it wasn’t a blind date for me but it was for her. It was senior year, right before spring break and just a couple months before graduation for me. Donna was a semester behind. Donna knew one of my fraternity brothers because she would go there and cut his hair. Those were the days of afros and he just had this huge hair. He told Donna, the next time you cut my hair why don’t we stop at my friend’s house who wants to meet you. And that’s what they did. The plan worked fine until they were at the door. That is when I had Jenny, the Irish Setter, and she wasn’t too well trained. As soon as I opened up the door she literally jumped up and put both paws on Donna. Jenny’s paws happened to be muddy, and Donna was wearing a white sweater, and so Jenny left these big dirty paw prints on her sweater. Donna must have been like, who is this guy!?
It got worst, because we went to get a drink and that’s when I ordered the sour drink with an umbrella and she got the Jack Daniel’s on the rocks and the waiter brought it to the wrong people. But I know she liked me because at the time she smoked cigarettes, and I told her, if you want to continue to go out with me you have to quit smoking. And she did.
What were some of the types of things you did or places you went when you two were first dating?
I would bring her coffee. So, if she was at class she would come back to her apartment and there would be a fresh coffee at the doorstep. Of course, it wasn’t Starbucks back then! Bloomington has these amazing limestone cave systems, and we went spelunking, which is sort of like non-professional cave exploration. One cave is called Trapdoor, and its the entrance is the size of a garbage can lid. You wiggle your way in and then the ceiling is 100 feet high and it looks like a room filled with rock sculptures. We went into another cave called Salamander, which was great, until later we read about it in the news. There had been a flash flood. But caves were a good place for a date. They were dark and spooky and you had to use flashlights.
Donna had never skied before and early on I said to her, what about going skiing on spring break? I thought, that is how you learn, you just jump right into it. Well, Donna happened to be a great athlete. But you have to remember, we grew up at a time when women were not considered athletes. Title IX, which was federal legislation that gave women athletes the right to equal opportunity in sports at school, from elementary schools all the way up to colleges and universities, had just passed in 1972. Before that, all they had for women was you could be a cheerleader or do water gymnastics. During that Spring break we went to Steamboat Springs in Colorado. This place is fun because they have these hot springs you can go to. And we walked into a bar there and I actually knew the bartender. It was Art, my roommate from World Campus Afloat.
Can you tell us a little bit more about that experience, which seems integral in your own life—and I know then traveling later became such a big part of life for you and Donna? Also, I have always known you had gotten in trouble for protesting the Vietnam War, but I never did know the details, what are they!?
In 1969 there was a draft, which was the official government way to signup young men to fight in the war in Vietnam. It involved a lottery. All 365 days of the year, plus February 29th, were printed on little slips of paper and they corresponded to certain birthdates. People were picked according to the corresponding numbers their birthday had been assigned, and then they had to report for duty. So people who had a very low draft number were likely to be called to fight. I had a high draft number, and my brother Bill also had a high draft number. Well, I decided to protest the Vietnam War.
You have to remember, this was 1970, and there were protests happening every day. But Indiana is a very conservative school. If I had done what I did at Michigan, where my sister Susie went to school, they probably wouldn’t have done a thing. Outside the administration building there is a nice grassy lawn, and people were hanging out there and listening to music. With a bicycle lock, I chained the door of the administration building shut. I kind of figured I would get in trouble. And I didn’t even do a really good job because I left like six or eight inches open and people could actually slip through. I should have left the scene, but I didn’t, and I got arrested. Not by the campus police or the local sheriff—the FBI came.
That probably happened in the Spring of 1970, my first year at college. I was on the swimming team, and the swimming team was very embarrassed by it. The story was in the newspaper. I had actually called the newspaper to tell them about the protest, which is probably what alerted them to it. I was only in the clinker like three hours, my fraternity brothers bailed me out. I had to meet with the dean and I got suspended. My parents came out to get me and my mom was crying her eyes out. They were very embarrassed and didn’t know what they were going to do with me. My parents suggested the cruise, I think they knew someone who had done it.
When I went, it was called World Campus Afloat, and associated with Chapman College in Orange, California. I think a lot of parents sent their kids on this because it was tumultuous times, with the war and all the protesting and everything going on. Parents might have thought that this was a good way to keep kids out of trouble, because how much trouble can you get in on a ship? What they didn’t realize was it was basically an entire ship full of people like you—full of trouble makers! I think there were about 500 kids, so basically you had 500 kids who are totally messed up stuck together on a ship cruising around the world. There were some famous people on it. Joanne Smucker, of the Smucker Family. And Bob Hope’s son, Kelly. There was one kid who had been on the ship through all four years of college. Everyone had a roommate, and my roommate was Art, who was from Cosa Mesa, California. He was a nice guy.
Wow, that sounds like a really interesting time. So then you ended up going back to school at Indiana, and you meet Donna your senior year on the “blind date,” but what happened after graduation? I know that is often a time when people in their early 20s go their separate ways, and it is hard keep a relationship that began in college together—I mean we’ve all seen the Graduate!?
Donna’s major was interior design, and she had a nice job offer with Armstrong, a design company based in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I was planning to go and live in Chicago and find a job, and Donna decided to move to Chicago and work at the American Medical Association. She had her apartment, and I had mine, which was in the 800 block of Lakeshore Drive and designed by the famous architect, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The building was actually part of a twin pair of towers, constructed around 1950. These towers were very unique for their time, they had steel showing on the outside of the building and glass windows going all the way up the building. They were dubbed the “Glass House” apartments, and these apartment towers went on to become the prototype for steel and glass skyscrapers around the world.
Our apartment was a huge fully furnished penthouse and you could see far out over Lake Michigan and down Lakeshore Drive, and you also had a perfect view into the sister tower, because the buildings were kitty-corner. One thing I still remember, about two floors down this woman would always clean her apartment naked. The apartment we were in was owned by Lester Crown, who is part of a famous Chicago business family that has owned stakes in, among other things, the Chicago Bulls, Hilton Hotels, Maytag, and the Aspen Skiing Company, which operates the Aspen and Snowmass ski resorts in Colorado. The apartment was empty and the deal was that we could stay rent-free but might have to move out at a moment’s notice if they had a high executive coming to town and needed to put them up somewhere. I lived with my friend Dave, and Donna was over there regularly. Let’s just say, Dave got a lot more than he bargained for. We were in there for a year and a half, and we finally got call one Friday to be out by Monday.
That sounds like a pretty special setup for a young couple. Did Donna take to the big city, or was it a difficult transition for her?
Donna grew up in Evansville, Indiana, which is conservative—to give you an idea of the type of place it is, Evansville presently has a Children’s Museum sponsored by the Koch Brothers! Chicago was her first time in a big city. Her first meeting with my parents was in the den of their living room, and they liked her. We had a small wedding in my mom and dad’s backyard. There weren’t too many people invited. The wedding was on the patio and reception in the den. For the honeymoon we wanted to go to Hawaii but we ended up going to Bermuda. First we were going to get married in April, but that is tax season and my dad said not to do that. Then May, but Memorial Day is the biggest day in the cemetery business. So we got married in June, and we went to Bermuda for a week. It was all honeymooners, and the first couple days we got so sunburned we could barely walk. People said, sit in the ocean that helps. Later people started recognizing us as the couple with the sunburned feet.
In the song you made for Donna you say, “As an athlete you’re a sight to behold / With your skiing, and swimming, and tennis, and softball.” Can you talk about some of the other sports you two did together?
Donna was very athletic and good at whatever sport she tried, whether it was tennis or swimming or skiing. And of course, she loved to hike too, and together we explored a lot of national parks and recreation areas around the West. While we were in Chicago tennis had become a great sport of ours, and we played together when we later moved to Las Vegas too. With tennis we called it more mixed troubles than mixed doubles. Meaning, we had fun with it. Like if you make a stupid mistake, I wasn’t going to yell at her, and she wasn’t going to yell at me. I remember our best win was against this couple at a tournament in Las Vegas. They were much better than us but you got used to the conditions of your home field, and in Las Vegas it was often hot and windy. The winds were very high that day and I thought they were going to cancel the match. But they didn’t, and we beat them. This guy had such a temper and he starts throwing his racket around, he was just so out of control. Later people found out we beat them and couldn’t believe it. They said, you know that guy is a cop, right? I asked, is he still a cop? They said, yeah. And I’m like, oh god, he probably has a gun in his tennis bag! But we were just doing it for fun.
Speaking of being able to get along together in challenging circumstances and work well together, I know you have led a pretty interesting career with various roles in the funeral industry, but that your first job in that industry involved running Cedar Park, a cemetery on the south side of Chicago. Can you talk about that job, and what you learned working so close to death on a regular basis, and just what Donna thought of your strange career choice?
The last thing I wanted to do is what I am doing. I wanted to be in the travel business, so did Donna. But it was 1973 when I graduated college, and let me think of this, interest rates were like 20 percent, and jobs were really hard to get. The only job I was ever offered was with Delta airlines, it was called vamping. Those are the guys who came in all night long and clean the planes and clean the carpet. I actually took the job because the benefits were great and the next day I called and said forget it. But I couldn’t really find anything else, and by that point it was maybe the Fall after graduation and months had gone by. That is when my mom and dad said, go out to the cemetery and see if you can make a business of it.
The story of how our family got the cemetery, at least the way the family tells the story, is as follows. It began around 1921 or 1922, my grandfather was a lawyer and he had a client who had this cemetery. The guy died and somehow my grandfather ended up owning the cemetery. Maybe he invested in it, or there was some clause, I am not sure the details, but he ended up with it, and when my grandfather died he left it to my father. That was like 1969, and I remember my dad going out there signing the checks, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. A lot of these cemeteries just had like one sales person taking orders, and they didn’t seem to put a lot of effort into sales. Cedar Park Cemetery was on the south side of Chicago, in Cook County, in this unincorporated area near Calumet Park. When I finally went out there it was exactly like I thought it was going to be. Everyone looked like they were 90 years old and I took a look around and said, are you kidding me?
I decided if I was going to work there every day I needed to change things around. I remember the very first day I went out and bought an aquarium with some fish, because I thought we need something alive in here. The job kind of grew on you. One day you are doing sales, then landscaping design, then something else, and pretty soon you realize there are not many careers so varied where you are doing all these different tasks. Right away I started doing crazy things, and I got in trouble all the time. I saw on TV that the White House was having an egg roll for Easter, and I figured why can’t we have an egg roll? They thought I was smoking dope, which I was, but I convinced them to do it and we had the grounds guys boil like 8,000 eggs and dye them. We really didn’t have any idea who would show up, but it was incredible. We had like 4,000 people show up, and many of them came in costume and who do you think came with the kids? Not the parents, but the grandparents. So we took all these photos of the grandkids with the grandparents and then we had the addresses and we went to the homes to deliver the photos. We made a lot of clients that way.
That was just the beginning. We did E.T., from the Steven Spielberg movie which had just come out. We did Santa—it was amazing, one woman explained she was on her way to see Santa at the mall, and her kid said, no Santa is at the cemetery! We did E.T. and Santa together. We did a lecture series. We did a 10K run called Heaven Can Wait, I always thought we could get sued by Warren Beatty, we never did but I was hoping we would because that would be good PR. Then we started doing the horses, meaning instead of having a funeral car lead people out to the grave site we had a horse named Elegant Sam—people came into our office saying, oh my god I felt like royalty, I felt like a king or queen! And we did wildlife and cultural tours through the cemetery with school groups to look at the deer, peacocks, llamas, and other animals, which of course was a huge hit with all the teachers—except it was really dangerous to do that during deer mating season. The place was really pretty, so my philosophy was if you can get somebody in to see it they will probably like it and buy stuff. WGN did a story on us. CNN did a story. Canadian broadcasting company did a story. And then in 1986, the Wall Street Journal article ran as a front page feature.
Donna had a master’s degree in public administration from Roosevelt University in Chicago, which she got while working at the American Medical Association (AMA). While I was working at the cemetery, Donna worked at AMA. She believed strongly in education and health care and she worked hard. The American Medical Association gives out accreditation for hospitals and other institutions. Doctors take classes too, and she had a fun job because she worked with a lot of residents, and they were all around the same age for us. She met interesting people, like famous cardiologists. Sometimes they did site visits and she traveled quite a bit.
Then Donna came and worked at the cemetery for a couple years. When Celestis came out, and the idea of sending your cremated remains into space, we immediately signed up to be a cemetery that offered that service, and we got a lot of press for that. Donna did some of the interviews. The reporters would always ask, why would you do this, there is a lot of space junk already up there? I told Donna, if they ask you that say, I wouldn’t call my loved one junk. Damn if this one big local news reporter didn’t ask that same exact question. He also called Donna up later to ask her out on a date, and she said I’m married! And he said, I don’t care. And Donna said, I’m happily married!! Donna was always supportive of me, and she was always supportive of my job at Cedar Park.
I know that you and Donna mixed in pretty high circles and met all sorts of fun famous people including actors and politicians throughout your time together, I am wondering if you could talk about some of them, or perhaps the most special famous person meeting of all?
We did a splurge and went to Hawaii one year, and we were on the big island at a new resort called the Mona Lanai, I think it had just opened. We go to the hot tub and there is John Travolta and his wife, and we are with another couple so the four of us come in and we were very cool, very nice. And of course you have to ask it. We said, do you mind if we take a photo. And John Travolta said, yes I do mind. This was before Smartphones of course.
You have spent so much of your own life working close to death, what have you learned? And how did your time in the funeral history help you as Donna became sick?
We all have an expiration date but Donna’s certainly was going to be sooner and you have to think about it. Making a song about Donna came from the idea I had seen on the show Shark Tank a long time back, and I had thought it might be something pretty cool. I came up with the lines for the song and sent it to the company and they picked Lance for us. Like I said, I don’t even think this site is designed for this, it is for birthdays and graduations. We might have been the only people so far to use it for the purpose of a remembrance. The song was just me saying the things I wanted to be in there. Donna heard the song before she passed. I think at first she didn’t know what to think, but then she listened to it a couple times and she said, this is what you will play at my funeral? And I said, yes. And she said, no that is very nice, I like it.
The lyrics for the song that Larry wrote for Donna are below. It is called, “Sweet Donna”:
Our senior year in college, and who knew what was in store
And 46 years later, there’s nothing more that we could ask for
And I always marveled at your intellect
And your incredible master’s degree
And your amazing work for quality education
Has made me so happy
And Chicago was windy but we stayed for a while ‘till 1996
And Vegas was calling and we built a house
To throw hiking and camping into the mix
My sweet Donna
So brave and so strong
I never wanted your suffering to go on so long
We’ll always have our adventures deep inside our hearts
We’ll always be connected and we’ll never be apart
So grateful for our time with this precious family
And you’ve given so much love to our daughters, Lauren and Annie
And we can’t forget your wonderful grandkids:
Jordyn, Shawn, and Jax
They love you so much with all their hearts
You know they’ve always got your back
So many beautiful moments we wouldn’t trade for anything
And thank you, Donna for your love
Cus you made our hearts sing
As an athlete you’re a sight to behold
With your skiing, and swimming, and tennis, and softball
We adore those Golden Knights
And we cheer so loud as they stand up tall
There’s been so many wonderful animal companions:
Jenny, Max, and Milo
And even at 14, our Tatum knows that your love for them still grows and grows
We’ve traveled all over the world, and I’m so grateful for all we got to do
But the best of the times that I ever had
Was anytime that I was with you
My sweet sweet Donna
I love you
A private ceremony for Donna Anspach is being held in Las Vegas on May 14, 2022. To listen to “Sweet Donna,” click here. And to watch an amazing video montage of the 1969-1970 year of World Campus Afloat you can check out this YouTube clip. While Larry didn’t make it as love song to Donna, it almost seems as if he did, in honor of their love and their world and the time they shared traveling it together~~*