Bruce Larson spent half his life tromping around St. Paul dressed as a 19th century European ruler, complete with medals, a spiked helmet and bushy mutton chops.
But friends say Larson's larger-than-life public persona — he was widely known as the "Kaiser of Frogtown" — belied a private person who enjoyed long dinners with close friends as much as living as an anachronistic character.
"He had a whimsical quality about him that made it easy for people to approach," said Chad Kulas, executive director of the Midway Chamber of Commerce. "He was a true friend to the community who had a great heart."
Larson, 70, died July 18 at Regions Hospital from pancreatic cancer.
A Europhile since his University of Minnesota days, Larson's enthusiasm for history and culture was contagious. He launched St. Paul's annual three-day Oktoberfest celebration, funded an elaborate Viennese Ball for years at the Landmark Center and opened the Klub Haus, a German-themed event center that hosted weddings and meetings.
Each endeavor provided opportunities to don his historical costumes, including the military uniforms of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, or Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria. He often broke into song while wearing them.
"He was a composite of all the wonderful characters in Dickens, the ones that were very generous and loved life," said Jon Wiersma, a longtime friend who met Larson when he rented a room from him in college.
Born in River Falls, Wis., to a truck driver father and a mother who worked for Hormel, Larson was a quiet child who discovered a talent for tennis in high school after moving to Inver Grove Heights.
Larson was thrifty. He squirreled away years of savings from his paper route to buy a brand-new car as a teen.
"He was a saver all his life," said his mother, Esther Anderson, who sewed his costumes and shared a love of dressing up.
His financial savvy helped him turn Equity Services, a home health care business that he started with his last $500, into a thriving St. Paul nonprofit employing 125 people at its height. "He knew he couldn't work for someone; he had to be his own boss," Wiersma said. "He liked to say, 'I'm a 12-year-old with an income.' "
Larson loved his community as much as he loved history and used his income accordingly, Wiersma said.
Larson started the North End Community Foundation, which provided more than $1 million in scholarships to local students. He also gave to the University of St. Thomas and the University of Minnesota — where he spent eight years earning undergraduate degrees in chemistry, psychology and European history — including a $125,000 gift to the U's Center for German and European Studies.
A lifelong bachelor, Larson fashioned his St. Paul family from a patchwork of friends. He doted on Wiersma's family — Wiersma met his wife, Julie, while they were both Larson's tenants — and was a surrogate uncle to their children.
"He just genuinely knew his family was what he created on his own and he was so proud of that," said friend Randi Dahl.
Larson is survived by his mother in River Falls and siblings Rebecca Pagel of Cannon Falls and Brian Larson of Maplewood.
A Catholic mass will be held at 1 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Church of St. Bernard, 187 Geranium Av. W., St. Paul, to be followed by an Oktoberfest-themed celebration at the Klub Haus. German attire is encouraged.