Jim Ulring of Decorah, Ben Larson's uncle. (Photo by Sarah Strandberg)
Jim Ulring of Decorah, Ben Larson's uncle. (Photo by Sarah Strandberg)
Decorah was a special place for Ben Larson, who was killed in last week's horrific earthquake in Haiti.

During his first week at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Ben met Renee Splichal, who would later become his wife and invited her to come along with his cousin, Jonathan Larson, and another friend to attend Decorah's annual Nordic Fest, according to Ben's uncle, Jim Ulring of Decorah.

"They came up and danced the night away to the Foot Notes. They had so much fun. I met Renee, and watched the four of them dance," Ulring said with a smile, as if reliving that summer night. "They spent as much time as they could in Decorah. He considered Decorah and Northeast Iowa home," he said.

Ben and Renee quickly fell in love, and during a canoe trip on the Upper Iowa River, between Bluffton and Decorah, Ben proposed and she said "yes."

The son of Ulring's sister, Reverend April Ulring Larson and Reverend Judd Larson of Duluth, Minn., Ben was born in Storm Lake and the youngest of three children. The family moved to the Waukon area, where April and her husband served as pastors of Old East Paint Creek and Old West Paint Creek Lutheran churches. April later became bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) La Crosse Area Synod and Ben attended school in La Crosse, from elementary through high school, and was a music standout.

"He was a great songwriter," Ulring said.

Ben's ties to Northeast Iowa deepened when he attended Luther College, where he was a member of Nordic Choir and graduated in 2006. Memorial services will be held for him tomorrow, Friday, at 2 p.m. at Luther's Center for Faith and Life.

Heard God's call

A statement from his family said Ben had always heard God's call, which led him to travel to Haiti with his wife and cousin, who, said Ulring, was more like a brother and best friend. They were helping with the new Haiti Lutheran Church.

At the time of the quake, the three were staying at the orphanage St. Joseph's Home for Boys on a mountain near Port-au-Prince.

All three were fourth-year seminarians at Wartburg Seminary and were certified for ordination. It was Ben's second trip to Haiti.

Learned details

Ulring learned details about what happened to his nephew when family members congregated in Minneapolis for the arrival of Renee and Jonathan, who took a flight there last Friday.

The three seminary students were rehearsing in the orphanage's theater for a performance when the earthquake hit. The theater was located on the fourth floor of the six-story building. Jonathan and Renee were on one side of the theater hall and Ben was on the other when the building collapsed.

Jonathan and Renee were trapped in a small space, with concrete above them, but were able to kick out a wall and escaped, "virtually unscathed," Ulring said.

The strong "aftershocks," which actually were major earthquakes, forced them to get off the mountain in darkness, as more of the building collapsed.

Renee and Jonathan spent the night with 300 Haitians, among broken glass and rocks outside in the cold.

"No one had anything. Every person there had lost family and one family had only one blanket and one sheet, but they gave their sheet to John and Renee," Ulring said.

While he emphasized it's not "his story to tell," Ulring said he wants to share what he was told with the community.

"The story Jonathan relayed to me was as they sat there with those 300 people ... in the cold, the complete utter darkness - every light of the city was out, there were no street lights, the only light they could see were the stars in the sky and the out-of-control fires of the city. One woman sang hymns continuously for 12 hours straight, and while she sang everyone who could sang with her. If they didn't know the songs, they would hum. Those broken people sang songs of faith and prayed.

"Everyone was comforted by this woman. Throughout the night, people died and the cries of their relatives could be heard. And all through that this one woman's voice could be heard, and the people's voices would rise up and they would pray and sing together through this dark night. When morning came, after all the death and destruction, one of the women had given birth to a healthy baby. Both death and life occurred right before them."

Harrowing trip to embassy

The next day, Jonathan and Renee risked their lives to once again search through the rubble for Ben, but realized it was impossible.

"They were forced to go to the U.S. Embassy. The trip itself was harrowing because the streets were full of debris. Their description is that it was an incredibly long, difficult journey," he said.

A stranger on a motorcycle, who already had one passenger, saw them walking and offered them a ride. The four of them rode together until the motorcycle ran out of gas, Ulring said.

Renee and Jonathan walked the last mile or two through a maze of debris piled up to 35-feet high. After making their way to the Embassy, they were given a satellite text phone and the only phone number they could remember was Jonathan's sister, Liz, a senior at Luther. She received the text message and went to Ulring's home. Ulring's wife, Nancy, started making calls to family, sharing the terrible news.

"The family knew where they were and at that point, we were extremely worried. The location of St. Joseph's Mission was at the epicenter. The fault line where the earthquake occurred runs east and west, nine miles south of Port-Au-Prince. St Joseph's Mission is up on the mountain virtually on the fault line," Ulring explained.


Ulring said he wants to thank the people of Decorah for their love and support following the tragedy.

"It's been amazing. The people of Decorah have opened their hearts to our families. We can't thank them enough," he said.

Ulring said he's still processing what happened just over a week ago.

"It's been devastating to our family beyond description," he said.

Ulring said he feels the need to share his nephew's story for people to get an idea of what the people of Haiti are dealing with.

"Our family is experiencing a loss. The important thing is what the people of Haiti are living with ... If I can convey a sense of the degree of the devastation, the degree of tragedy those people are continuing to live in, maybe that could have some value," he said.

Ulring has fond memories of the many family get togethers with Ben in Decorah, and at a lake in northern Minnesota.

"His loves were God, music, family and Renee ... and the Minnesota Vikings. No one loved the Minnesota Vikings more than Ben," Ulring said. Family members were together to watch Sunday's NFL playoff game, when Ben's beloved Vikings humbled their opponents, the Cowboys, to advance to the NFC championship game.

Ulring said his nephew, who made multiple service trips around the world, told him countless times that the people of Haiti and the other forgotten people of the world ministered him, not the other way around.

"They taught him about ministry because they are the ones who walk every day with God. They are the ones who are still there right now with no food, no water, who have lost everything, and yet they trust God ... they taught him how to love God," he said.

"Even though we personally feel Ben's journey was too short, I'm sure Ben would feel that his journey ended in the right place."