John Fawcett's awkward gait, the result of cerebral palsy, made the Duluth man instantly recognizable to his friends when they'd see him walking down the street, according to his longtime friend Dave Zentner.
But it was the ever-present smile on Fawcett's face, the infectious laugh that overtook his body and a steely determination that defined him to his friends. In many ways, the small man with an obvious disability was larger than life in the way he motivated others to be stronger and better.
"He was a common man who lived an inspirational life," Zentner said.
Fawcett, who operated an insurance business, died of pneumonia on May 23. He was 82.
Despite more than 50 surgeries, he lived with a lifetime of pain. But he'd made peace with his disabilities.
"Everything physically that you and I take for granted was so much harder for him," Zentner said. "He was motivated to be as close to normal as any human being."
That started with his parents, who rejected a doctor's suggestion that their newborn son be sent to live in an institution.
"They said, 'He's going to live a normal life,' and by God he did," said Jerry Fryberger who began his lifetime friendship with Fawcett in kindergarten. He was expected to wash dishes and mow the lawn just as his two sisters and brother did.
When Fryberger's father helped start a neighborhood hockey club, Fawcett was anointed goalie. "He was part of the neighborhood, so why wouldn't he be part of the team?" Fryberger said. Defense player Russ Ingersoll's job was to stand Fawcett back up when he fell down, Fryberger recalled.
At school, Harry Podgorski, a five-sport athlete, carried Fawcett up and down the steps at Duluth East. The school, which housed seventh through 12 grades at the time, had no elevator.
"I carried him every day — in my arms like a bride across a threshold," Podgorski said. " I remember him saying, 'Go faster, faster.' "
Often it was a community of friends who made sure that Fawcett had the opportunity to do the things they did, whether it was hunting for deer or ducks or fishing for walleye. To fly fish on the St. Louis River, one friend carried Fawcett on his shoulders across the slippery Canadian Shield rock.
His friends also included him in pranks, like when they stuffed a deer they'd shot into the front seat of his VW Beetle — its hoofs on the dash — because it wouldn't fit on the roof of the small car.
"Humor helped him get through life," Podgorski said.
Amid the laughs was a man who wanted to give back, which is why he offered himself for show-and-tell at Duluth's Nat G. Polinsky Memorial Rehabilitation Center.
Remembering the fear he felt before his many surgeries as a child, Fawcett would stand knock-kneed before parents and children to help ease their fears about upcoming surgeries. " 'Look at me; I'm doing OK,' he would tell them," Podgorski recalled.
"He instilled a sense of power in you," said Fawcett's son, Jason, of Anchorage, Ala. "He gave you a sense of self that you have to keep going. It's not as bad as you think it is."
Besides his son, Jason, Fawcett is survived by his wife, Judy, of Duluth; daughters Alicia Fernandez of Napa, Calif., and Krista Mosser-Bakken of Chisago; stepdaughters Julie Buol of Stacy, Minn., Jennifer Luraas of Chippewa Falls, Wis., and Jill Kelly of Litchfield, Minn., 17 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.