LUVERNE - As Warren Herreid II read the names of departed members of Glen’s Coffee Clique Last Man Club Saturday evening in Luverne, the Last Two Men - Helmer “Haaky” Haakenson and LeRoy Luitjens - solemnly stood with their decorated VFW Post 2757 hats and listened as a bell tolled for each of their friends and comrades.
Nearly 200 people stood with the World War II veterans inside Grand Prairie Events for the ceremony, which was part of the Rock County Veterans Day banquet. Former Minnesota First Lady Mary Pawlenty, who hosted Glen’s Coffee Clique for coffee at the Governor’s Mansion on Aug. 8, 2005, was on hand for the occasion, along with her husband, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty. She’d learned about the coffee group through a story in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and wrote a letter inviting the men and their spouses to join her.
“It took them a couple of days to respond because they thought the letter was a hoax,” she shared as the room filled with laughter.
Then, turning serious, Pawlenty said, “It was really a beautiful day. Friendships were formed and if there’s a lesson in all of that, it’s that as Minnesotans - invite someone to coffee, you never know what will happen.”
Most of the club’s 24 members and their spouses attended the coffee gathering that day in 2005. Now, a dozen years later, just Haakenson, 98, and Luitjens, 93, remain.
“I’m honored beyond what I can possibly describe to be here this evening,” Pawlenty said. “For each and every one of you who are here tonight, we are part of history.”
She spoke of the carefully scripted bylaws of the Last Man Club, developed by Club Secretary Warren Herreid Sr. for the club’s formation in 2010.
Prior to Herreid’s death nearly three weeks ago, he had questioned the rules, wondering, “Do we really need to wait for just one? Should we not have this be about more than just one?” Pawlenty shared.
Changing the bylaws would require a three-fourths majority vote.
On the day of Herreid’s funeral, Pawlenty said, “LeRoy and Helmer, in a unanimous vote, decided to amend these bylaws to indicate ‘the Last Two Men Standing.’”
On Saturday evening, Luitjens took the bottle of bourbon that had been kept in a locked case at Glen’s (now Teal’s) deli since 2010 and twisted off the top. After a slight mishap with a broken cork, bourbon was poured for both Haakenson and Luitjens.
Before toasting to the departed members, Luitjens spoke of the empty place setting reserved inside the entry in honor of their departed comrades.
“They are with us in spirit,” he said. “We will never forget the hours spent together at our Glen’s Coffee Clique, cherishing the stories, knowledge and wisdom they shared with us over the years. We salute you, comrades.”
He and Haakenson then clicked their glasses of bourbon.
Tim Pawlenty then invited the guests to raise a toast, saying, “To all of the men and women who served our nation and their families and sacrificed so much so that we could live free - and to the Last Two Men standing, we are grateful to you. We are so humbled by your presence and your service and we salute you - to the Last Two Men Standing.”
The former governor also shared with the audience a letter written to Haakenson and Luitjens by documentary filmmaker and historian Ken Burns, who chose Luverne for his red-carpet premiere of his documentary, “The War.”
The letter read: “Dear Mr. Haakenson and Mr. Luitjens, The decision to open the final bottle together reminds us that every gathering has been a reunion. Today we join in the memory of the 24 founding members of the Last Man Standing Club. We stand too among the many others who have passed in the years since the war and those lost in combat.
“One of the veterans who appeared in our film, and who knew a thing or two about life in Luverne, explained, ‘It’s hard to understand why the guy next to you was blown apart and why you’re able to go ahead and have a wonderful life.’
“It’s impossible to understand, but we can remember them. History has a way of staying the same and changing. We grow older, but remember like yesterday the feelings of youth. So we gather to remember. All reunions are about memory, about the community that we are part of, but also the people who are no longer with us.
“I congratulate you on this occasion, Veterans Day, and the symbolic opening of the bottle. I thank you for your service and applaud you for what you continue to teach us about patriotism and friendship. Best regards, Ken Burns.”