The first time Dewey Larson operated a tower crane, he went home that evening and told his wife he didn't want to do that again.

Perched in a cab hundreds of feet above ground, pitching and swaying in the buffeting winds, Larson was like the captain on a nausea-inducing, storm-tossed ship.

"In a tower crane, you've got that tipping sensation all day long," Larson said. "It doesn't go away, because they're moving around so much."

But the Mantorville resident did go back to the job, and he's glad he did. Three decades later, if a tower crane were placed on every Rochester project he worked on, Larson could swing the booms toward each other and get them to touch uninterruptedly across the downtown.

Larson's legacy is the city of Rochester's skyline. On Wednesday, after three decades of being a tower crane operator and 43 in construction, Larson retired.

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Larson's career coincided with a building boom in the Med City.

"I feel so fortunate," Larson said. "I hate to single out one (project). But I owe so much of my career to Mayo Clinic. So many of these big projects have been Mayo Clinic."

Operator Dewey Larson, of Kraus-Anderson Construction, moves steel columns into place for the penthouse roof in the tower crane at the Hilton hotel construction site in downtown Rochester.
Operator Dewey Larson, of Kraus-Anderson Construction, moves steel columns into place for the penthouse roof in the tower crane at the Hilton hotel construction site in downtown Rochester.

Tower cranes are T-shaped structures that do the heavy lifting at a construction site. Often looming over skyscrapers, they are used to lift and deliver steel, concrete, large tools and other building materials to workers. The work requires the patience and touch of an angler.

"It's a cast and catch," Larson said. "Like anything, the more you do it, you start to get the feel for it."

Larson's tower cranes loomed over most of Rochester's signature construction projects: The Charlton Building, the Stabile Biotechnology Building, the Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center, Broadway Plaza, the Hilton Rochester Mayo Clinic Area, and the east and west projects of Mary Brigh Building. But the crown jewel of his career was Mayo's iconic 21-floor Gonda Building.

"It was the scope of it," Larson said. "Everything coming out of the ground going up was absolutely massive, because it was designed to go so high. We were picking steel columns that were 12.5 tons. It was just just how big everything was on that job.

"The building is just so absolutely beautiful inside with all the granite and the lengths they went to make it stand out," he said.

In fact, Larson, 61, was putting off retirement so he could finish out his career working on an 11-floor expansion planned for atop the Gonda. But, like so much else, the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench in those plans. Larson said word through the grapevine is that the project will be delayed a year and "who really knows beyond that with everything going on."

Tower crane operators are a rare breed. Larson estimates that there 50 to 100 of them in Minnesota.

Operator Dewey Larson, of Kraus-Anderson Construction, moves steel columns into place for the penthouse roof in the tower crane Friday, March 9, 2018, at the Hilton Hotel construction site in downtown Rochester.
Operator Dewey Larson, of Kraus-Anderson Construction, moves steel columns into place for the penthouse roof in the tower crane Friday, March 9, 2018, at the Hilton Hotel construction site in downtown Rochester.

Growing up near La Crosse, Wis., Larson never even imagined working in the construction trades, much less being a crane operator. But a brother was working for a pre-cast and crane company in Rochester and Larson got a job there. Pretty soon, he was comfortably running the hydraulic truck crane at age 19.

"A funny thing: After two years of that, I told my girlfriend at the time, 'this is alright, but I'm not doing this for the rest of my life," Larson said.

Such unique work calls for a unique set of skills: A willingness to work in high places. Good depth perception. And a lot of patience. Much of the work is done in the blind. Meaning you can't see what you're doing and have to rely on radio communication to deliver the load to the right spot.

But for a job that kept him hundreds of feet in the air, Larson gives a surprisingly grounded answer about what he will miss the most: The people.

"I've met so many great people," he said.

Not everyone is privileged to do work they love, or to look across a skyline they had a role in shaping.

"I've been nothing short of blessed when it comes to that," Larson said.