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Obituaries » Larry Lee Gottula

Larry Lee Gottula

October 31, 1937 - March 29, 2021

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Larry Lee Gottula transitioned from this mortal coil on March 29, 2021, at approximately 7:15 a.m. His passing set him free from the shackles of illness and the fragility of age and allowed him to enter the kingdom of heaven. While there’s little doubt God had a few questions for him, those who love him are confident that his answers were concise, truthful and punctuated with jokes—some no doubt a bit off color.

Born on October 31, 1937, Larry was the first child and eldest son of Elmo Fred and Reva Minnie (nee Sanford) Gottula. As auspicious as entering the world on All Saints Eve may seem, Larry’s Halloween birth in Fremont, Nebraska, took place at hospital that became a mortuary the next day. This uncanny beginning is believed to have contributed to his lifelong incisive wit and incomparable sense of humor.

His family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, not long after he was born. At age 4, Larry entered the first grade. It is not clear if his early entry into school reflected an advanced intellect or that he was simply annoying his mother. Being an only child for the first 12 years of his life, Larry was always chagrined that his mother found ways to dress him in hand-me-downs. As he prepared to enter high school he was heartened when she offered to take him shopping for new school clothes. Unfortunately for Larry, his mother met a young Filipino refugee through church who was giving away some of his old clothes. The man was not much larger than Larry and Reva thought his worn but colorful clothes were quite a find for the young freshman.

Crestfallen at the prospect of more hand-me-downs, Larry perked up when Reva said that they would go to Ben Simons to shop for new shoes. Finally, he would get the penny loafers he long for. As he browsed the loafers, his bargain-hunting mother spied a pair of burgundy loafers with white tops on mark-down. He knew arguing with her would be in vain, but the story of starting high school at age 12 in baggy clothes from a Filipino refugee and garish non-penny loafers with white tops endured to be retold hundreds of times at family gatherings.

When he was 12 years old Larry’s childhood changed forever with the entrance of a sister, Gloria Kay. His wish for a brother came true nearly two years later with the birth of Ronald Elmo. Despite the age difference, Ron and Gloria loved it when Larry was around. On more than one occasion, he joined them in the living room after dinner to watch television. They ate as fast as they could in order to nab the two best TV-watching chairs. Larry would take his time eating, saunter into the living room and throw a nickel on the floor. As his young siblings scurried to floor to chase the money, he made himself comfortable in one of their chairs. His brother, Ron, recalls, “He was quick enough that he usually got the chair of his choice and his nickel back.”

After attending Trinity Lutheran School, Larry went to Lincoln High School where he played tennis, making the varsity team. He graduated in 1953 at age 16 with a class that featured talk show host Dick Cavett and actress Sandy Dennis.

Larry was enterprising from a young age, starting with his paper route for the Lincoln Star. He always had an after-school job, and after graduating high school, he worked at Schriers Grocery. Even though his boss was impressed enough with his work ethic that he gave Larry a nickel raise, Larry determined that he didn’t want to and wouldn’t work in the grocery business as a career.

At 18, he enrolled in the University of Nebraska, majoring in math and business administration. With one year of college under his belt, he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. After completing basic training at McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas, he was stationed in Alabama. After two years, he transferred to the Air Force Reserve and returned to the University and his job at the grocery store.

While studying at a friend’s house in Lincoln, he met a young woman from Iowa named Ginger Bassett. The electric connection between the telephone operator and the student who brought a bottle of gin to the study session started with some verbal sparring and ended in a date. Larry and Ginger married October 5, 1959, and they welcomed their first daughter in August 1960.

As the family grew with the addition of a son, Larry continued to go to school and work at Hinky Dinky in Lincoln. After being offered a promotion, he opted not to finish his degree and went to work full-time. At Hinky Dinky, he was promoted from supervisor to buyer and was on the management track when he was recruited to run a Gibsons Discount Center in Beatrice, Nebraska. He was tapped for his ability to help the company incorporate a grocery section into the general merchandise franchise. From there he went to work for Allied Foods in Des Moines and then A&P in Lincoln, Nebraska.

By this time, the guy who didn’t want to work in groceries had spent the better part of his youth and adulthood in the business, working and managing stores in Iowa and Nebraska. With structural and management changes afoot at A&P, Larry decided he would do something else—something that didn’t involve groceries.

Then came the call from Frank Lint, a homebuilder and developer in Ankeny. Lint owned Frontier Supermarket and the enterprise was bleeding money. He needed someone with supermarket experience to come in and turn it around. The pay was paltry, but the position came with a four-bedroom house and a car. The house appealed to Ginger who was pregnant with their fifth child, but most important to Larry was that Lint offered him the opportunity to be an owner, igniting an entrepreneurial spark that continued to flame and flare for the next five decades.

Larry and Ginger immersed themselves in the business as well as civic activities. When it was suggested that Ankeny’s summer celebration, Fun & Feed Days, be scrapped in the mid-1970s, Larry and attorney Dick Hermann lobbied against the idea, pointing out maybe all that was needed was a change in format. Working with then city manager Jeff Segin, they added a community pig roast and more events. There was a Keystone Cop routine where Hermann was the judge. Larry was the first to be charged by gregarious magistrate who sentenced him to a pie in the face.

Under Larry’s management, Frontier not only turned a profit, it expanded and by 1975 had three locations. Larry bought the company and remained close friends with Lint until he died in 1991.

Larry was inventive when it came to advertising and marketing. Ron Sampson met Larry when he was the 21-year-old publisher of the Ankeny Press Citizen. “He had a retailer’s mind and nothing ever scared him, not competition, not change,” Sampson recalled. Larry knew the power of events, sales and promotions. He created a promotion called “Cash Savers,” which was a forerunner to loyalty programs. Fill up a card with cash saver stamps and get a carton of eggs for 9 cents.

“Larry was running a small-town grocery store with big ideas… He was the first to incorporate price scanning, plastic bags and TruTender meat. He was a force of nature.”

Long-time contemporary and friend, Denny Elwell, noted, “He had a mind like a computer.

As the 70s gave way to the 80s, Larry no longer looked at leaving the grocery business, he wanted to change it. He and long-time friend Fred Wickman started Food-4-less. He called Sampson for assistance with the logo and an introduction to Willie Glanton, an attorney with U.S. Small Business Administration in Des Moines.

The first Food-4-Less store opened on Southeast 14th Street in Des Moines. This no-frills approach retained Larry’s penchant for offering quality meat, but people bagged or boxed their own groceries in a store that resembled a warehouse. Sound familiar? One store turned into nine across Iowa from Sioux City to Davenport. By 1980, Food-4-Less boasted the largest individual supermarket in the state.

The company and its growth trajectory caught the eye of the Erickson family (Holiday Gas) in the Twin Cities. They bought out the partners and for the first time three decades, Larry was officially out of the grocery business, except for a 1990 consultation in Budapest with the deputy minister of agriculture. (Yes, it’s a great story.)

Larry retired in late 1985 for approximately a year before Ginger told him he needed go back to work… or else. He invested in real estate, opened an ice cream store and produced a record album before returning to what he knew best: retail.

In 1992, he met up with Dave Briddle, a former employee and manager from Food-4-Less. They were scouting sites for a swap meet in Kansas City and stopped for lunch. As they waited for their food, they spied a sign that said, “Antiques & Furniture.” After counting cars and watching the store’s foot traffic, they went in and talked to the manager about the business—something  called an antique mall.

Larry and Dave drove back to Des Moines, scrapped the swap meet for the time being and started writing a business plan. The Brass Armadillo Antique Mall was born with the first mall located two doors down from the location of the first Food 4 Less more than 10 years earlier. Together they opened seven Brass Armadillos, refining the business strategy to encompass locations with proximity to major interstates, a standardized look and promotions and advertising designed to build traffic. The first branded prototype Brass Armadillo opened in Omaha on I-80 near Sapp Brothers.

Owning antique malls led people to ask Larry about the worth of this and the value of that. “I don’t really know much about antiques. I know retail,” he would reply to requests for advice on the worth of Stickley furniture or Fenton glass. “Ask Dave.” Their partnership and friendship has endured for three decades.

As important as business was to Larry, he loved his wife and his family.  Larry and Ginger were best friends and confidants. Even during their 10-year marriage separation, they spoke nearly every day. They reconciled in 2002 and she died in 2003. Her early death changed his life and brought him even closer to his children.

“He wasn’t a traditional father per se,” noted his daughter Jamie. “Our Mother shouldered most of the parenting responsibilities when we were young and sometimes when she had just had it, she would tell him it was his day to take care of the kids.

“Those ‘days with Dad’ generated some of my most favorite childhood memories. I remember him taking us to the Capitol (both Iowa and Nebraska) and Pioneers Park in Lincoln—activities that in retrospect were all free. Invariably, we would stop by the racetrack and he would talk to trainers and spec out the horses. He had taught all of us how to read the Racing Form as soon as we knew our ABCs. I remember one time when I was maybe 10 and my siblings were even younger. We were watching a horse work out and Dad was talking to a couple of other spectators. One of us yelled out, ‘Dad, what’s the morning line on that horse?’ He didn’t miss a beat and replied ‘6 to 1.’”

His interest in horseracing turned into a business too, Ankeny Thoroughbred Farms. In 1996, he registered what was then the highest claim in history at Prairie Meadows for On The Edge, a horse trained by Kelly Von Hemel. The transaction for the somewhat famous horse irritated the trainer and caught the eye of reporter Dan Johnson of the Des Moines Register, who wrote a story. Son-in-law Mike Bastin remembers that the meet hadn’t been going that well for ATF up to that point. “Claiming Edge changed everything us,” he recalls. “He saw the opportunity and seized it.”

No matter what he was doing, Larry enjoyed life. Though he lived in Verdi, Nevada, for 14 years, he never stopped being a Midwesterner with deep roots in Iowa and Nebraska. When he moved back to Iowa in 2017, friends and family celebrated his 80th Birthday with a bash that included music by the Nadas.

Over the past four years Larry battled heart and kidney issues. In November, he went into home hospice, primarily cared for by his children, Steve and Johna. He rallied multiple times over the next five months and those moments couldn’t be more precious. He passed away at Taylor House on Monday, March 29. His family thanks Unity Point Hospice—especially nurse Kim and his aide Garland for their tender care.

Larry is survived by his children, Jamie Buelt (Gary), L. Steve Gottula (Leith), Johna Gottula (Mike Bastin), and Kathleen Horsley (Rick); his brother, Ronald (Nancy); his sister, Gloria Dux (Gerald); and 15 grandchildren: Tyler Eason (Lindsay), Jenna Eason, Seth Bastin, Lisabeth Buelt (Matthew Hagge), Steven Bastin (Maggie), Alexander Buelt, Zachary Gottula, Caroline Buelt, Samuel Bastin, Kourtney Gottula, Gabrielle Gottula, Larry Bastin, Brady Gottula, Skyler Gottula, Larry Lee Gottula II, Tristan Gottula, Valon Gottula, Jasen Nickman (Olivia), Alex Nickman, Erich Nickman (Cynthia); son-in-law, Rick Inskeep; and ten great grandchildren. In addition to his children and grandchildren, Larry had a rafter of nieces and nephews that meant the world to him. Several noted that they were his favorites: Holly Gottula, Karstin Gottula, Andrew Gottula (Laura Leigh), Patrick Yearley (Kayla), Christopher Yearley, Jeff Bassett (Shelly), Jana Bassett (Ricky) and Jay Bassett (Betsy). It would be remiss to not mention his Elk Creek (Nebraska) cousins: Eldred Woltemath, Bill Buethe (Susie), Janice Covault, Judy Helberg, Vicky Gobber (Bob), Roxanne Gottula, Lori Gottula, Dixie Gottula and Bobette Gottula.

He was preceded in death by his parents; his wife, Ginger; daughter, Jean Ellen Inskeep; son, Clifford Scott; niece, Emily Gottula; and infant granddaughters, Jessica and Ginger Bastin.

A celebration of life will be held on Saturday, May 1, at 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. at 9296 NW 41st Court, Polk City, Iowa 50226.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be directed to the family in Larry’s name for support of his favorite charities and causes.

 

 

 

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