Smile and Nod- A Tribute to Sonie Larsen

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“Smile and nod, Steve, smile and nod.” That was the advice Sonie Larsen gave me if I had to talk with an unhappy vendor or camp parent when I joined as a Director at Camp Mishawka. I was 26, and though I had spent the 16 previous summers at Camp, I was as green as they come as far as “front office” operations. In her most recent role, Sonie had taken on the herculean task of Camp Office Manager. An official title, but what it really meant was that all the other stuff no one wanted to do fell to her. She kept books, answered the phone, organized all communication- on an Apple IIe and an IBM selectric, nonetheless. And she did it well.

Prior to that, Sonie had served as the food service manager and girls camp director, as well as filling any number of less glamorous roles. Sonie married into the Mishawaka family as Nick’s wife and Skipper Larsen’s daughter-in-law, but camp was in her blood. She had done it all at Mishawaka by the time I came along and was well suited to be my “Camp Mom” as well as business advisor. If I failed to schedule the next task, she would subtly remind me that maybe I wanted to start working on scheduling reunions, or any number of other projects that I had no idea where or when to begin. It’s safe to say that I never would have made it without her. She never sought the limelight, but more often than not was the first on the receiving end of any complaint. Even the angriest of callers would soften in minutes in response to her pleasantness.

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My sister often referred to her as “Marge”- as in the movie character from Fargo- primarily because of her Minnesota accent. But like Marge, who at first glance might seem one dimensional, Sonie was able to assimilate a lot of information and recognize deception as well as offer true affection. She knew everyone’s name, all camper names, parents, addresses, and kept track of how many years they had attended. For more than a decade she was the friendly voice on the other end of the line. She adopted (and adapted to) new technologies, including web-based registration, Quickbooks and online banking after having started with a rotary phone and a mimeograph machine. I like to think it kept her young, and I think she believed it did, too. She guided three kids and a husband through their own Camp Mishawaka experience, and hundreds of others as well.

She now finds herself in the tragically ironic situation of being unable to smile or nod as she recently suffered a massive stroke. As I write this, life support has been withdrawn (per her wishes) as she awaits her passing. Nick, Kris and Jim have kept the vigil, telling her stories and passing along blessings from friends. She may not be able to respond, but I know in my heart she’s smiling and nodding- maybe telling us all not to worry and that she’ll be OK.

So, the next time someone is going on a bit too long or berating you for something you had no control over, maybe give that smile and nod thing a try. It’s never failed me so far, and I don’t think I will ever do it again without thinking of her with gratitude, admiration, and affection.

Update July 6, 2021

Sonie passed away on Sunday morning, July 4th with Nick, Kris and Jim at her side. A memorial is planned for September. Cards can be sent to Nick Larsen at 1614 Golf Course Rd, Apt 241 Grand Rapids, MN 55744

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