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Larson's brush with eternity changed his whole life and may change yours

The Great Book of Life website gets high marks for its design and ease of use.1 / 3
Joel Larson, who grew up in Hudson, has created a web-based company to help people plan for how they want to be remembered. One of the items he has created is the Great Book of Life Family Heritage Box. Photo by Margaret A. Ontl2 / 3
Larson recently visited the team from Minnesota Oncology that treated him for his cancer to thank them. They are, from left, Tim Gleiter, Dr. Nicole Hartung, Bobbie Miles, Joel Larson, Robin Florek, Celia Mattke, Wendy Stahnke. Not pictured, Muhaz Fisseha.3 / 3

By all accounts Joel Larson loves life. He grew up across the street from E.P. Rock School after moving to Hudson in the second grade from South Dakota. At Hudson High School he was a three-season athlete, playing football, basketball and tennis.

"I played a lot of football," said Larson. After graduation in 1978 he continued his studies earning a degree from the UW-La Crosse in recreational administration and parks management.

This led Larson to a 30-year career in hotel and hospitality management. After working at the St. Paul Hotel, the University Club, Oakridge Center, the Northland Hotel and Conference Center and doing a nine-year stint in 3M's Special Events Department, he was ready for a change.

So he and his wife bought an old Amish Farm house in Durand at the same time he took a job with the Heart of America Company to start up the Machine Shed Restaurant and the Wildwood Lodge. Larson was commuting back and forth to Durand to work on the house, his family was temporarily in Cottage Grove and he just kept getting more and more exhausted.

Finally in 2003, when he could no longer give tours of the facilities he managed without taking a break, everything changed.

"It came to a day when my wife said this is not normal fatigue," said Larson. "The next day I turned jaundiced and we went to the emergency room."

The news was not good. Larson had stage four non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

"It was a kind of sit down and swallow moment," said Larson. "The scans showed it had moved throughout my whole body. So we started setting the course of what we would do."

Larson was referred to the University of Minnesota, where they advised him the last hope was to have a stem-cell transplant.

The next blow came when Larson was advised that his health insurance would not cover the cost of the transplant.

"Basically they said you may want to start making plans (for your death)," said Larson. "That was a tough day."

Not to be deterred, his original oncologist Dr. Nicole Hartung, from Minnesota Oncology started Larson on a heavy duty dose of chemotherapy, which continued for five years.

"I was in remission within the first year," said Larson. "I held on during that process. The general philosophy is the quicker the cancer goes away, the faster it is likely to come back." For another three years Larson was considered high risk, so his chemotherapy continued, including 11 spinal taps to ensure it did not spread to his brain. It was already present in his skull bones.

"I did start planning for my end of life experience," said Joel, who lost his parents in 1992 and 1999. "I had really good doctors and really good drugs."

The first thing Larson did was make sure his family was going to be okay financially.

"Then you start to look at more personal issues," said Larson, who was looking for guidance. Finding none, he started writing his own story and funeral plan. "I said if I survive this cancer this can be an opportunity for me to provide a service for people to plan and tell their own stories. There was not a definitive resource for this."

Larson, who is still in remission, went back to work for Heart of America Company. His vision of a life where thousands of personal stories, photos and remembrances are stored in perpetuity became a reality last fall when his extensive business plan for the Great Book of Life was awarded the resources to proceed by the Wisconsin Small Business Administration.

His own company was launched July 30. The Great Book of Life is a robust website-based business.

"We are offering two services that complement each other: End of the Life Planning guide and the opportunity to create a chapter about your life. There are presently three chapter packages available for purchase.

"This is designed so you can leave a legacy in your own words," said Larson, who envisions a day when you could walk through a military cemetery, for example, and using your handheld device you could access the chapter on a particular person's life. The chapters are not published until one's death. Then they are accessible by membership, which is free.

The chapters are not intended to be biographies, autobiographies or obituaries.

"We want people to share the real story about what they love, their passions, even their favorite recipe," said Larson. The chapter pages are customizable.

"Up until now there has not been a platform to market end of life services," said Larson, who is currently looking for recruiters nationwide. "We have tried to do the best job we could do and we are by no means done." They have over 19 patents pending.

"My heart is in it," said Larson. "We are trying to make it a truly Great Book." Larson credits his wife Joy and family for having stood by him from the start to finish during his cancer treatments. His business associates include his sister Lori Larson and Dennis Armbruster, both of Hudson.

The best way to experience The Great Book of Life is to visit the website Chapters are available for a one-time fee, which varies depending on what you want to include and they can be given as gifts.