Dennis Anderson
See more of the story

The date was Oct. 23, 2003, and Cornicelli, then the Department of Natural Resources big game program leader, had finished a CWD presentation to University of Minnesota veterinary staff and students an hour or two earlier, detailing for them the always-fatal neurological disorder that strikes moose and elk, in addition to deer.

Now Cornicelli and a handful of professors were chit-chatting while hoisting brews at a watering hole not far from the U’s St. Paul campus.

The suds were cold and the conversation good. But neither held Cornicelli’s attention like the diminutive, dark-haired woman at the table whose smile and laughter quickened his pulse and who was, as he was, unmistakably Italian.

Minicucci was her name. Larissa Minicucci.

“I loved her from the start,” Cornicelli, 53, said the other day. “She was the smartest person I’ve known.”

Cornicelli was speaking in the past tense because Minicucci, who became his wife at a celebratory pig roast in 2006, died Nov. 16 at age 45 of metastatic colon cancer.

An associate professor at the U who held a master’s degree in public health as well as a veterinary degree, Minicucci left behind a trail of grief that wound from her hometown in Connecticut through Penn State and Cornell universities, where she studied, to the Twin Cities and farther north still, to tribal homes at Mille Lacs, Leech Lake and White Earth.

En route, she was valedictorian of her high school class, homecoming queen at Penn State, a researcher at the U and at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a lifeline to the disadvantaged, a teacher extraordinaire, an over-the-top football and baseball fan, a paddler, hunter, angler, hiker …

And an animal lover.

“This is Daisy,’’ Cornicelli said, introducing a 6-month-old Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever. “At first, Larissa wanted to get a border collie. But we weren’t going to get sheep, so she gave up the border collie idea and settled on a toller.

“This was before she was diagnosed. When the puppy finally became available, Larissa was already well along with her sickness. But in these situations, you don’t think the end is coming. Not really. So we got the puppy.”

Monte Fronk would have expected no less.

The emergency management director for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Fronk, 51, met Minicucci 10 years ago when she and a veritable classroom of U veterinary staff and students descended on the Mille Lacs reservation.

The intent of the Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services (SIRVS), of which Minicucci was founder and a faculty adviser, was to provide free spaying and neutering for band members’ cats and dogs, as well as wellness care, such as nail trimming and teeth cleaning.

“Oftentimes our community members can’t get off the reservation to have their pets cared for,” Fronk said. “Or they can’t afford it. We are very spiritual beings, and that extends to our pets. We believe a healthy animal outside means a healthy family inside. I would always tell Larissa that two months before she and the students came, we’d get calls from members wanting to make sure they didn’t miss her. This year Larissa and the others did 50 surgeries. They set up for surgery in our community center, starting at 8 in the morning and finishing at 11 at night.’’

Marilou Chanrasmi, 55, met Minicucci when she brought SIRVS to the Leech Lake Ojibwe Reservation.

“Working with tribal communities isn’t like working with other communities,’’ said Chanrasmi, who volunteers at Leech Lake. “It takes years to build trust. You can’t go in and expect to do things a certain way. You have to have a way about you. Larissa had that. In the 10 years I worked with her at Leech Lake, she was considered a partner of the tribe, and that doesn’t happen very often.”

One time, Chanrasmi said, Minicucci and others from the veterinary school had scheduled a “VetCamp” session at Leech Lake, in which kids learn about veterinary medicine, including how to provide emergency treatment for “Molly,” a simulation dog.

“The camp is for high school kids,” Chanrasmi said. “But I was approached by a teacher of grade schoolers, probably 20 of them, some as young as 8 years old, who were in the school and wanted to attend. Thinking it would be chaos, I asked Larissa. She just said, ‘Sure, of course. We’ll make it work.’ It didn’t even faze her.”

After Minicucci died, Mille Lacs, Leech Lake and White Earth leaders wanted to recognize her contributions to them, and their love for her. Opening the Mille Lacs tribal museum on Dec. 15, they welcomed Minicucci’s students and colleagues, along with band members from near and far. Food was served. A drum song was played. Stories were told.

“Larissa’s time of travel had come,’’ Fronk said. “All of the Ojibwe people she provided care for, not just the animals but the people themselves, wanted to remember her in a good way.

“Lou, of course, Larissa’s husband, was there, and there was much love for him, too, and for his future journey.”

• • •

How exactly Minicucci became a sports nut is unclear. Intrigued by its strategy, she loved baseball, and at Twins games she stayed until the last out.

And on autumn Saturdays, she pulled on her blue and whites, colors of the Penn State Nittany Lions.

“She was feeling pretty good the day before she died,” Cornicelli said. “Her sister was there. They’re both big Motown fans. We took Larissa outside, and they were singing Motown songs together, the two of them.

“I asked Larissa how she felt, and she said, ‘Awesome.’ ”

“The next morning, a Saturday, I suspected it was the end. Penn State was playing at about 11, so her sister and I pulled on her Penn State clothes. Larissa asked what we were doing, and I told her.

“That afternoon she died.

“In hindsight, we thought we had a lot more time.

“She was an amazing woman. I’m lucky she chose me.”

danderson@startribune.com