Longtime Anoka County board member Dick Lang opted not to run again for office. But as a volunteer, he's still in the driver's seat.
Dick Lang never picks up people on their best day. The passengers Lang drives are ailing, tired, scared or frustrated.
Until they meet him.
"I get all the good-looking ones," Lang said last week as he helped Mary Jo Cherewan, 63, of Blaine, out of his Ford Focus after pulling into the Health Partners Special Center parking lot in St. Paul.
Cherewan, who was to see an orthopedic specialist, was dismayed to learn that she needed another X-ray, even though she'd had X-rays done earlier in the week.
"When you go home tonight, turn all the lights out and see if you glow in the dark," Lang told her, getting the chuckle he'd been hoping for.
Cherewan had never met Lang before. Many of the patients he transports from around Anoka County to hospitals and clinics as far as St. Cloud, Cambridge or Wyoming, Minn., would have no idea that their driver is a recently retired five-term county commissioner, an ex-Marine who talks to flowers in his garden.
"He seemed to be all right," said Wayne Konietzko, 83, of Ham Lake, a diabetic who was driven by Lang to the Veterans Administration Medical Center in St. Cloud. "But just to be sure, I told him I voted for him."
Mused Lang: "Ah, they all voted for me. They don't want to walk."
Red Ox regular
Lang, 72, had been on the Anoka County board long enough to have served with both Al Kordiak and his son and current commissioner Jim Kordiak.
A colorful character who still loves holding court with the regulars at Ham Lake's Red Ox Cafe, Lang was the apolitical candidate who took on all comers and usually won handily.
But last year, after much soul-searching, he withdrew his candidacy for reelection and retired from public life. He just couldn't retire from public service.
The former commissioner, who once volunteered to serve on the county board for free, put his name into the pool of the county's volunteer drivers.
He drives patients to hospitals and clinics three times a week, drawing smiles from the most sullen faces.
"I took this 93-year-old World War II veteran to the VA hospital in St. Cloud," Lang recalled. "You know, he wasn't real talkative at first, so I told him I served in the Marines, got him going a little bit, and from then on he told dirty jokes the rest of the drive.
"Yesterday, I took a 90-year-old veteran who fought in Okinawa and I let him tell me about the battles he was in. They love to tell a fellow veteran their stories and I love to hear them."
But these aren't guys-only road trips. When Lang took Roger Pederson, 63, of Bethel to the VA hospital in St. Cloud, Lang's wife, Mary, was also along for the ride. And the talk doesn't always center on the military.
"I didn't know him at all, but he's a conversationalist and I learned who he was right away," said Deborah Marrone, 56, of Blaine. Lang has taken Marrone to physical therapy in Roseville.
"I absolutely adore him," Marrone said. "He's kind. If I had to describe him, I'd say he'd be the perfect husband or father that any woman would want because he's so trustworthy.
"He's funny, too."
Entertaining their needs
Some passengers, like Pederson, a diabetic, still drive, but don't always have cars available. Others can't drive. Or they don't have family in town and want somebody to accompany them to an appointment.
"The people I drive have deep medical concerns and they're grateful for the ride," Lang said. "If you can entertain them, that's a bonus."
Lang began as a volunteer driver in January and has logged as many as 900 miles a month. He's reimbursed for his mileage. But the real payoff comes from the conversation.
"I love meeting people," he said. "I love getting a phone call from the county, asking me to pick up so-and-so. It's better than hearing complaints."
Not that anyone is complaining.
"I asked him if he'd drive me all the way to New York," said Mark Alford, 60, of East Bethel.
Alford, an Air Force veteran, was taken by Lang to the VA medical center in Minneapolis to have a leg examined. He knew Lang was a veteran, but didn't realize he was a Marine.
"That explains everything," Alford said. "See, I get the new dirty jokes. He retells the old ones."
Paul Levy • 612-673-4419