WORTHINGTON — Because a friend in need is a friend indeed, three women were motivated to sponsor a birthday fundraiser for Larry Lang, who turns 65 in mid-September.
Lang was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a few years ago, and although he and his famous onion rings are at the heart of a new documentary — “The Ringmaster” by Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg — Lang will not receive any financial benefit from it until it’s distributed.
“We decided to do this because there is a need,” said Connie Voss, a co-coordinator of the effort along with Beve Vajgrt and Dorothy Sietsema.
The trio is hoping friends, former employees and grateful past customers of Michael’s Restaurant, which was the Lang family’s Worthington business from 1949-2003, will shower Lang throughout September with birthday cards, notes and cash gifts, if they feel so moved.
“We have a deep sense of appreciation for all their family did for Worthington and we want to step up and express that,” said Voss.
Lang began exhibiting signs of dementia more than three years ago. He currently lives at home in Worthington, with his older sister Linda Lang serving as his primary caregiver. Their budget — due to medical costs and his inability to work because of his health needs — is extremely tight.
Vajgrt recalls the days when two of her children worked at Michael’s under Lang’s supervision during their college years.
“There were a lot of teenagers and college kids who worked for Larry,” said Vajgrt, who remembers him being a good first employer.
“The kids earned money in a decent environment and really learned how to work — because Larry taught them,” she said.
Recently, Linda Lang shared tidbits of her family’s history, mentioning that her father (the “Michael” of Michael’s, which was known as Mike’s Spaghetti House for its first seven years of operation) was an orphan raised in Sleepy Eye by his grandmother during the Great Depression.
Michael Lang learned to cook and cut meat — and also began developing his special spaghetti sauce recipe — during two years spent in the Merchant Marine and two years thereafter in the U.S. Army. All the while, he harbored a dream of opening his own restaurant someday.
Members of his extended family operated the Lang/Haas Bakery in Worthington, and on one fateful trip to visit them (following his years in the service), Michael Lang was set up on a blind date with Olive Anton, a Worthington hairdresser.
Producers of the contemporary TV reality series “The Bachelor” would be envious to learn that the elder Langs' date was successful enough to soon sweep them off to a wedding ceremony at the Little Brown Church in the Vale at Nashua, Iowa, on May 24, 1949. They purchased the former Cross Roads Café on Worthington’s east side shortly before marrying.
“I admired them both because they started from nothing and worked so very hard,” said Linda Lang of her parents.
With Olive backing him up at home in caring for their three children and handling the restaurant’s taxes, payroll, floral table bouquets and uniform maintenance, among other behind-the-scenes tasks, Michael Lang built the Worthington Michael’s into a destination dining spot. It became a go-to for white tablecloth service and special meals, attracting celebratory diners from around southwest Minnesota and northwest Iowa.
“I had a cousin from Spirit Lake, Iowa, who liked to drive up especially to eat there,” said Voss.
“A lot of people would drive a long way for the Michael’s dining experience.”
Michael’s was known for its steaks, garlic bread, spaghetti sauce and secret onion ring recipe, as well as exemplary customer care. In its heyday, Michael’s lounges — for instance, the Wagon Wheel Room and the Sicily Lounge — featured local, regional and up-and-coming artists (including Paul Summers LaRoche), who frequently took the stage to perform live music.
Larry Lang, born in September 1954, began helping around the restaurant in modest ways as a sixth-grader, his older sister recalls, and never really left. He was a fixture at the eatery for over 35 years.
“Larry was so gracious and generous to everybody,” said Voss. “He gave out his ‘free drink’ cards, and he and the staff always treated you so wonderfully when you went there.”
The family sold the restaurant in 2003 because Michael and Olive Lang were both suffering from various health issues, and Larry Lang required surgery for severe varicose veins. Olive passed in early 2011, while Michael died in August of 2014. Their youngest child, Michelle, currently lives with her husband in Montana.
Although Larry Lang continued working as a restaurateur in other locations for a number of years, the profile and success Michael’s had enjoyed for over 50 years never quite regained its original luster. Regular customers like Voss, Vajgrt and Sietsema continue to mourn the restaurant’s demise to this day.
“Mostly, we want to give people the opportunity to recognize everything Larry and his family have given to this community, and to let them know how much we miss that restaurant,” said Vajgrt.
“We realize that running a restaurant is a 24/7 job and the effort required to maintain it goes unappreciated lots of times.”
That spirit has led Vajgrt, Voss and Sietsema to invite others to send birthday greetings — preferably with a little cash slipped in — to help out a longtime Worthington family as they navigate an unfamiliar and rough path.
“We appreciate them as a family, and we recognize what they contributed to the social and economic fabric of this community,” said Voss, adding that as many as 78 people were on the Michael’s payroll at one time.
“Michael’s was well known throughout the area, and I have to believe that if a lot of the former employees knew Larry needed help, they’d respond.”
Added Vajgrt, “When I heard that Larry was having problems, my immediate thought was, ‘We’ve got to help them out.’ We have so many fun memories of going to Michael’s, where Larry was always taking care of us, and I think it’s our turn to help take care of him.”
Birthday greetings, thank yous and financial gifts in celebration of Larry Lang’s 65th birthday may be sent to Larry Lang, 1313 Spring Ave., Worthington, MN 56187. A GoFundMe page has been set up and can be accessed via the Growing Up in Worthington, Minnesota What Do You Remember Facebook group.