Dude and Fran Starnes

Dude and Fran Starnes celebrate their 50th anniversary.

Larry “Dude” Starnes was born so early that his parents hadn’t picked out a name for him yet.

The couple eventually settled on the name “Larry,” but by then his grandmother had begun calling him “Dude.”

He was Dude to his friends, his church, to his family and eventually to his wife, Fran. Nobody knew him as Larry.

“It stuck with him all his life,” Fran said.

Dude Starnes, 77, who lived in Dudley Shoals, died July 30 of COVID-19 after spending 10 days fighting the disease at Catawba Valley Medical Center.

Now, his family said, they want him to be remembered for the active, energetic man he was — a man known for his devotion to his family and to his country.

“I wouldn’t wish anybody to ever go through this. We’ve been married 53 years, and it’s the biggest hole in my heart, an emptiness that I can’t even explain,” Fran said.

“He’s a number, a statistic now,” she added. “But he really was a person.”

Dude, a church deacon for 50 years, was known for his enduring faith and his compassion. Fran said that if Dude learned of someone in his community who needed something, he would quietly get it for them. He bought clothes and shoes for a man who attended his church.

At his funeral, his family learned that when Dude found out his church’s pastor got a ticket for speeding, he paid it.

His son, Jeff Starnes, said that Dude made sure everyone in the family’s church received birthday and anniversary cards.

One of his daughters, Alicia Coffey, said Dude “always brought life wherever he was.”

“I can remember being church clerk. … He reached over and he gave me a big kiss in front of the whole church. He said, ‘I can kiss the church clerk.’ He had the whole church laughing. That’s just who he was.”

His other daughter, Karen Bell, said Dude was “good at anything he did.” He could toss a basketball through a hoop from across the driveway, or “catch a ton of fish out of an empty bucket,” she said.

Dude and Fran met while cruising in Taylorsville over 54 years ago. Fran was with a friend who knew Dude and introduced her to him.

Their first date was May 13, 1966. Seven months later, they were engaged — Dude picked Fran up from work and stopped in a parking lot, where he proposed. They married on April 15, 1967.

“Mostly, I think it was his personality,” Fran said. Dude was “happy-go-lucky,” an “all around nice person.”

Fran and Dude moved into their home in Dudley Shoals about three months after they married. Dude was then an operations manager at Carolina Mills in Maiden, but he went on to own a family dry-cleaning business.

Dude was deeply patriotic, often wearing star-spangled ties to church on Sunday. He was solely responsible for putting 130 American flags on the graves of veterans in the church graveyard at Dudley Shoals Baptist Church, Fran said.

“And he did not ask anybody to help him do this. He did this on his own, bought and paid for it all,” she said.

He had boundless energy — he would get up at 6 a.m. to fish and stay out on the water until 8 p.m., or he might stay up until midnight working on a project with Jeff, only to get up at 6 a.m. the next day.

He loved his Australian shepherd, Baby Doll — several weeks after his border collie passed away from cancer, he went to look at Australian shepherds, and Baby Doll padded over and sat on his foot.

His family said that they don’t know how he caught COVID-19.

In July he became tired. His energy diminished, and he seemed to be breathing rapidly.

Bell, a nurse, said she recognized the symptoms and worried for him.

“I had taken care of a bunch of COVID patients. He had about every symptom,” she said.

He was tested in the hospital emergency room, and the results were positive. Fran was tested two days later. She tested positive too, but she never showed any symptoms.

A short time after Dude was put on a ventilator to help him breathe, someone from the hospital called and asked the family they should come over. Although he was sedated, they talked to him.

“I was with him at the end,” Fran said. “I’m just glad I got to be there.”

When he died, Bell said, his nurses cried, and his respiratory therapist could hardly speak she was so upset. They had liked him.

Bell said that her father’s faith seemed to give him some peace about his illness.

“I texted him and told him he was going to beat it. He said, ‘I know, but I’ll be OK either way if I don’t,” she said.

Almost exactly two years before his death, they were on the way to the beach when he said something similar, Bell said.

“He said, ‘I might live two years, I might live 20, but I know where I’m going,’ ” she said.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.