Larry Kounkel is known around Monticello as the man in the cowboy hat.
They say that active volunteers wear many hats. That’s not the case with Larry Kounkel. He wears just one hat during his many volunteer duties- his cowboy hat.
Larry has about 20 cowboy hats. He wears black hats in the winter and a gray cowboy hat in the spring and fall.
Now that it’s summer, Larry is seen around town in his straw cowboy hat, designed to keep him cool in the heat of July and August.
Sure, Larry traded a pony for his first car- a pony that got him to and from most places before those four legs of the pony were replaced by the four wheels of the car.
But don’t be fooled by the hat.
What many people don’t know is that beneath that cowboy hat is man with an admirable volunteer spirit.
His heart and giving spirit is bigger than any cowboy hat ever could be.
In 1981 Larry Kounkel began a long streak of working behind the scenes making sure the Riverfest Parade goes off without a hitch.
Now Larry will get to ride in the Riverfest Parade as the 2019 Citizen of the Year.
Larry Kounkel was chosen as the Citizen of the Year by a committee of Chamber, Lions, and Rotary members.
The committee looks for a person who is a volunteer, is well known, and is willing to take on thankless jobs. The volunteer of the year is usually someone who makes a difference in the community- someone who makes Monticello a better place to live, work and play.
That fits Larry to a T.
“Larry came to the top this year,” said Wes Olson, the facilitator of the Chamber-Lion-Rotary committee.
“It was an easy discussion this year. Everyone on the committee knew a little something about him,” Olson said.
But truth be told, there’s nothing little about Larry Kounkel.
Larry possesses a larger-than-life personality and a history of volunteering that stretches all the way to LeMars, Iowa.
LeMars, Iowa is the ice cream capital of the world and is known as the home of Well’s Blue Bunny Ice Cream.
But LeMars is also the home of Larry Kounkel, who graduated from LeMars High School as a proud Bulldog.
When Kounkel went off to college, he got four more years of being a Bulldog at Concordia College in Seward, Nebraska.
It was at Concordia College that the path to Minnesota began to be laid- but the journey to Monticello would come much later.
Larry graduated from college and became a math teacher. His first year of teaching was in Kansas. He then went on to teach for four years in Milwaukee.
His education path changed on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite.
“About the time that Sputnik went up, the United States became concerned that we weren’t teaching enough math,” Larry recalled.
He received a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue his Masters degree in mathematics.
That brought Larry to Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Upon earning his Masters from Rutgers, Larry came to Minnesota where for 16 years he taught math at a junior high in Robbinsdale. The Kounkel family resided in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis.
But over time, suburban life became less appealing to the Kounkels.
“We wanted to live by the water and have a little bit of land.
The “water” became the Mississippi River, and the “land” became property along County Road 39, just east of Monticello.
Life was full of new adventures on the home front, as Larry, his wife Mary and children Kimberly, Elizabeth, Joe and Matt settled into their new life in Monticello.
But life was changing for Larry on the work front.
“Declining enrollment was setting in back in 1979,” Larry said.
He left the teaching world in the Robbinsdale School District and went to General Mills- and a return to college.
Larry’s job involved supporting sales at General Mills. He worked with computers and mainframe systems.
General Mills sent Larry to community college to learn Fortran.
He worked for General Mills until he retired in 2007 after 27 years.
Soon after arriving in Monticello, Larry began carving out a niche for himself through community service.
That has included rewarding service to the Lions Club, both at the local club level and at the district level. He has been a committed member to his church, Trinity Lutheran in Monticello. Larry has also been heavily involved with RiverFest, as well as teaching refresher courses to senior citizen drivers, and now driving vans for Hoglund Transportation.
For Larry, community service was rooted in being asked to join the Monticello Lions Club. That was 1981. He joined the Club a year later in 1982.
How committed has Larry Kounkel been to the Lions Club? Would you believe he hasn’t missed a Lions Club meeting in 38 years and was recently recognized by his club for his perfect attendance.
Larry’s Lions Club resume couldn’t be more impressive.
Since joining the Lions Club 37 years ago, Larry has served as secretary, treasurer, gambling chair, gambling manager, and budget committee chair and served in 1991 as the Monticello Lions Club president.
He also served as the District Governor of Lions Club District 5M7 in 1998-99.
He is proud to note that he has also served as the sponsor of 15 Lions Club members.
Twice Larry has been recognized as Lion of the Year and is a 3-time Melvin Jones recipient, an honor named after the Lions Club founder and presented in recognition of humanitarian service.
Larry is also a Lions Helen Keller award recipient, and Hearing Foundation Award recipient. Larry has been recognized with three international president appreciation awards, a Governor of Excellence award, International President’s award and International Leadership award.
Larry has also served a significant role for the Lions with its commitment to Monticello’s annual RiverFest.
“My first year in Lions I helped with the Riverfest Parade under Vaughn Veit,” Larry recalled.
During Larry’s second year as a Lion, Veit handed the reigns of the parade over to Larry- a job Larry says he handled for at least 15 years.
He was also involved in the early days of the RiverFest talent contest, which has grown to be a sold-out event each year.
Larry was the former emcee of the Monticello Royal Ambassadors program, held the Sunday of RiverFest in Ellison Park- and when the emcee duties were complete, he rushed to the Lions beer stand for his shift of pouring beer for thirsty festival patrons.
If being a Lion wasn’t enough, Larry even crossed the lines and volunteered with his counterparts in the Monticello Rotary Club where he has been known to participate in donkey basketball games or serve as a STRIVE mentor, a Rotary program that works with high school students to improve their performance in the classroom.
When working with youth, Larry always leaves the student with his business card and an offer to give the student a helping hand if they ever need assistance.
“A couple years ago I ran into one of those students and he showed me that he still had my card,” Larry said.
He was proud of that moment.
“I must have made a good impression on him,” Larry said.
Larry Kounkel’s proudest moment as Lion came the year a tornado hit Monticello.
He was able to secure a $10,000 grant that presented vouchers to people victimized by the tornado.
Food, clothing, medical supplies- they could use the money for whatever the needed, Larry said.
“I really felt good about that- being able to give that money back to the people of Monticello,” he said.
At Trinity Lutheran Church, Larry has also traveled a wonderful journey.
When Pastor Miller was at the church, he earned the pastor’s trust and became a lay-preacher who led church services in Pastor Miller’s absence.
And when the Millers moved on from Monticello, it was Larry who took the reigns of a soup supper program that the pastor’s wife ran out of the church.
“For the past 15 years I’ve served soup suppers on Wednesdays during Lent,” Larry said.
Larry says he cooks four different kinds of soup for the free-will soup suppers that are known to serve as many as 100 people on those Wednesday nights during Lent.
The soup suppers are also responsible for another one of Larry’s proudest moments.
“My grandson- now 30, helped me for 15 years. When he took a good job he told his employer he needed Wednesdays off during Lent so he could help his grandpa,” Larry said.
At church, Larry is also coordinates a youth canoe trip to the Boundary Waters. He is also the past president of the church’s finance committee.
In his spare time, Larry is also a reader of Times on Tape, a Lions Club program where the local newspaper is read to senior citizens and people with sight ailments.
He coordinates 384 Lions volunteers who work selling tickets on the midway at the Minnesota State Fairand has worked behind the scenes of the Lions’ food basket program, seeking donations to fill the baskets that are given to community members in need around the holiday season.
And did we mention he plays Santa Claus and is an announcer at Monticello Polecats baseball games?
Larry says he was honored and humbled when he learned he was selected to be the 2019 Monticello Citizen of the Year.
“And I was really surprised,” he said.
His only regret might be that he will be riding in the RiverFest Parade in a convertible- and not wearing his cowboy hat and riding through the streets of Monticello on a horse.
Reach Jeff Hage at firstname.lastname@example.org