MILES CITY, Mont.-What can one say about a legend? You look back over a person's life, somehow try to put into words what they were, what they stood for. Yet words seem to ring hollow.
Trying to describe Lawrence P. ``L.P.'' Anderson presents that kind of predicament.
Beyond southern Montana, few probably have heard of him, his life and accomplishments.
But closer to the scrub grass and dusty gravel roads of his Miles City home, he was-no, make that is-a legend.
And these days, legends are hard to find.
Who was this man who posthumously has become the first Dealer Humanitarian Award, which honors the charitable and public service work of independent tire dealers and retreaders?
Compassionate. Benevolent. Gruff. Earthy, with a devilish sense of humor. Fiercely independent. Practical. Philanthropic. A ``can-do'' sort of guy who only finished high school, but was a civil engineering marvel.
Growing up, folks often wondered aloud if young ``Pee Wee'' Anderson, as he was called because of his diminutive stature, was a genius-or just plain crazy.
As this tire dealer/contractor/oil man's accomplishments grew and touched so many lives, his admirers came to realize he was probably a little of both, with a heavy leaning toward genius.
From family, friends and business associates, a portrait emerged of a man who grew up poor, but with a penchant for business and things mechanical.
Still in high school, he scraped together some cash for equipment and began doing ``dirt'' work-construction, earthmoving, heavy hauling-until selling his business in 1945 to enter the U.S. Army during World War II.
He was decorated with the Legion of Merit medal for service in the Battle of the Bulge.
After military service, he returned to Miles City, restarted his contracting company, and by 1954 signed on as a tire dealer with the old U.S. Rubber Co., predecessor of Uniroyal. His various businesses were consuming so many tires, a U.S. Rubber rep told him he'd be better off starting a dealership.
L.P. Anderson Supply Co. became a Kelly-Springfield dealership in 1960, and eventually added locations in Glendive and Billings, Mont., and Cody, Wyo.
The tire business, which L.P. in recent years scaled back to only the Miles City location, serves the area's ranchers and farmers with a line of passenger, farm, medium truck and off-road Kelly, Michelin, Toyo, Cooper and Firestone tires. It has three service trucks, and nine bays for undercar services.
L.P.'s business includes 10 acres of an accumulation of 50 years of used parts-``junk,'' a family member quipped-everything from bulldozers to airplane engines which he either sold, gave away, or used to invent things like an irrigation system, or the underground farmhouse he designed, built and lived in.
L.P. at one time or another operated some dozen businesses, from tires to contracting to drilling to heavy equipment sales.
Today, his legacy consists of four: the tire and supply company; Great Northern Drilling Co. Inc.; L.P. Anderson Rentals; and Western Independent Oil Co.
In the final months before his death last April 19, while the cancer which gradually claimed his life but never his spirit closed its icy grip over his 76-year-old body, he raced charitable projects forward, realizing he might never get to savor their completion.
One of these was his beloved Range Riders Museum, a local site where Montanan cowboy-stockmen placed their history, hoping their heritage wouldn't be forgotten. He donated many hours and dollars to it.
A new home was needed for the museum's curators. Already weakened by chemotherapy, relegated to a wheelchair and periodically needing an oxygen mask, L.P. spearheaded a fund-raising project, which he started with a personal donation of $20,000.
Realizing a new parking lot was needed, he pushed to raise an additional $30,000.
From his sickbed the night before he died, he sewed up one final donation for the project.
For Miles City, a small town of only about 9,000-big by Montana standards-so much bore the imprint of L.P.'s handiwork.
His philanthropy touched many things: the museum; the Salvation Army; the food bank, which called on him when its cupboards were bare; Empty Stocking, which provides Christmas gifts to needy families; the Retired Senior Volunteer Program; Eastern Montana Industries, a self-help organization for the physically and mentally challenged.
Not content to merely throw money at a worthy endeavor, L.P. would often roll up his sleeves, jump atop a big dozer or earthmover and get the ball rolling, since projects often began with construction. Or he'd get ``deals'' on materials or services.
But he reserved a special love and concern for children.
He helped replace a local park's wading pool, for example, providing a $50,000 donation and some ``sweat equity.''
Sandra Anderson, one of his two daughters, lovingly tells of L.P.'s last solo trip to town from his farm last December to finalize the establishment of computer labs for all five local elementary schools, which he launched with a $40,000 matching fund donation.
With his cancer taking its toll, he struggled into his car to make the drive once more by himself.
For more than 40 years, L.P. had a ritual that kids-and grownups-still talk about. He'd tear two-dollar bills from a specially made pad and hand one to any kid who came into his tire store, to teach the value of a dollar and encourage saving.
Some kids even swore it was L.P.'s picture on those bills.
And there were the untold youth L.P. would ``take under his wing,'' often providing a much-needed summer job or simply a father figure. He'd offer, ``Hey, you want to learn how to drive a `Euclid,' or `skin a Cat'?''-slang for drive a Caterpillar tractor or dozer.
One of his saddest times occurred shortly after he and wife, Teresa, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Diagnosed with cancer, she underwent difficult treatments but died soon after, in March 1992, at 74. Within months, L.P. was told he, too, had extensive, incurable colon cancer.
To honor his wife's tireless efforts alongside him both in business and charitable endeavors, he formed the L.P. and Teresa Anderson Foundation in March 1993, endowing it with $1 million.
He said he wanted to guarantee continued support for local charitable projects.
Don Ward, owner of O.K. Tire Inc. in Lewiston, could never figure out when L.P. slept. ``He was so community-minded-he did everything. He met himself coming and going, I guess.''
``He was always very interested in people who accomplished things and who had a strong work ethic,'' said Bob Lucas, president of First Security Bank, Miles City, and a longtime friend. He called L.P. a ``ball of energy'' with a keen interest in enterprising young people.
His daughter Sandra said he'd often help such folks get a toehold in life-setting up a business partnership with them, floating them a loan when a bank wouldn't, or setting up a deal to bridge a financial gap.
Sam Ohnstad, 61, began working with L.P. in April 1953, gradually becoming L.P.'s ``right hand'' as secretary-treasurer and overseer of all his businesses.
He called his mentor an ``outstanding businessman'' who made the important decisions, but didn't just sit at a desk and get in the way of those he hired.
``He was very instrumental in my life. Gave me a job when I needed one, keeping me going and involved. I got a world of experience from him.''
It was Mark Twain who said: ``Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die, even the undertaker will be sorry.''
So it was with L.P. Anderson.
His other daughter, Marilynn Jubb, said the family was ``overwhelmed'' by the more than 700 people who came to L.P.'s funeral, forcing them to hold the service in the local high school gym.
In his eulogy, Bob Barthelmess, curator of the Range Riders Museum, said the know-how and skill L.P. shared ``has built strength deep into our future here and will be felt for generations to come.
``His giving of himself, physically, mentally and economically, to this community draws credit far beyond what words can tell.
``...If we don't live better lives ourselves (because of his example), we will have wasted him.''