Special day: 'Can Man' remembered at memorial birthday celebration

Feb. 19—ANDERSON — While working for UPS, Mickey Dawson would drive along Broadway toward downtown Anderson every morning and, weather permitting, he would see a familiar sight.

Larry VanNess would greet him with a smile and a wave, and Dawson would return the favor with a honk of his horn.

"I don't know how many hundreds of times I did that," Dawson said.

He and dozens of others gathered at the McDonald's in downtown Anderson Saturday, a day after what would have been VanNess's 76th birthday, to share stories and reflect on the legacy left behind by VanNess, who became affectionately known as "The Can Man" while collecting pop can tabs to benefit the Ronald McDonald House at Riley Hospital for Children.

VanNess's legacy has seemingly grown since his death last Oct. 24. State Rep. Kyle Pierce visited the gathering and presented VanNess's longtime friend and caregiver, Rachel Landers, with a declaration from the Indiana House of Representatives recognizing VanNess as a notable person in Indiana.

Landers has assembled a committee that is overseeing two funds dedicated to honoring his memory through providing financial resources for local agencies and special projects. Plans for a special event late this summer are being discussed, as are ideas for a memorial in the downtown area.

"Today is very special. It's very bittersweet," Landers said. "It seems very strange to not have Larry here. It just means so much to me to hear about how far-reaching his impact was, and with so many different people in our community, but even beyond our community, outside of our state. It's been pretty amazing to have people reach out."

Landers said that since VanNess's death last fall, she's heard from hundreds of people, each with a story about how meaningful the "Can Man's" acts of kindness were to them. There was the man who reached out and told her about meeting VanNess as a child at Shadyside Park. He provided VanNess with pop can tabs regularly and, after marrying and having a child who needed medical care at Riley Hospital, spent several nights at the Ronald McDonald House himself.

"To know that Larry's mission was to help people staying there at the Ronald McDonald House, and that he actually benefited from that himself...how much that meant to him," Landers said. "He tells his child about Larry now, even though Larry is gone."

Dawson, who serves on the committee overseeing the Larry VanNess Memorial Fund and Legacy Projects Fund, said more than 50 businesses in five counties have arranged to become drop-off points for pop can tabs. Volunteers have also heard from people in states as far away as Arizona offering help.

"His legacy is getting a lot of notoriety," Dawson said. "I don't know how big this will get or how long it will last, but it's amazing to see."

Follow Andy Knight on Twitter @Andrew_J_Knight, or call 765-640-4809.