High above a Minnesota farm rises a 45-foot tall symbol of strength and enduring love.
For nearly two decades, Arnie Lillo has designed and built all kinds of objects out of steel to display on his 13-acre farm and to sell as custom orders. But his latest metal art creation is his most meaningful piece yet.
Last week, he presented a replica of the Eiffel Tower as a loving tribute to his wife of 57 years. Janice Lillo was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer in February 2014, and has far surpassed the two to five months she was given to live, even as she has refused treatment.
“The Eiffel Tower is a memorial for Janice,” Arnie, 77, told TODAY.com, adding the tower is a nod to her French ancestry. “It’s just a strong-looking structure that kind of reminds me of her.”
Janice, who can see the tower from a window in the couple’s home in Good Thunder, Minnesota, describes it in a single word: “unbelievable.”
“Seeing it means a lot to me because he built it for me,” said Janice, 74, who like her husband is soft-spoken. “That means a lot. He’s a good man.”
“It shows how much he loves me,” she added.
The tower, and a series of garden gates Arnie built for Janice earlier this year, will become a lasting memorial. They are the first objects he made for her, and working on them out in his shop has helped Arnie cope with his wife’s illness.
“It gives me a feeling of doing something for her and about her,” he says. “It just kind of shows our love for each other. I feel I’m accomplishing something, and it’s something with a meaning.”
The couple married on July 25, 1958, just three months after they met at a cafe in Oklee, Minnesota, where she was a waitress and he was a regular customer.
“We just kind of hit it off and I kind of fell in love with her and it just seemed like it was going to work out, and so far it has,” Arnie says in his matter-of-fact manner. The couple had two boys and a girl (they lost a son several years ago), and have three grandchildren.
Arnie was devastated when they learned Janice had cancer.
“You realize you’re going to lose your partner in a matter of months — it was tough, but it helped that she was strong,” he said. “She accepted it, and was real strong about it, and she still is.”
Janice was too weak for surgery, Arnie said, and she refused chemotherapy and radiation, not wanting to be ill from the side effects from treatment in her final months.
“I decided I wasn’t (going to) go through that treatment and go through all that being sick and it wouldn’t do any good anyway,” Janice said. Arnie said: “That was her choice and I think it was a good choice.”
He began creating the garden gates for Janice, who has been unable to care for her beloved flower gardens for the last several years. He placed the Eiffel Tower about 50 feet away from the eight gates, which form an octagon.
The Eiffel Tower is among many steel designs on the Lillo farm, which has drawn tourists who come to see his creations including a Jesse James theme park, an Indian village, a locomotive and now, his soaring version of the marquee attraction in the city known for light and love.
Vendors touched by the tribute donated the roughly $10,000 worth of materials and services for the tower. Arnie is grateful for the help in creating a “beautiful piece of art for a beautiful cause.”
“This is probably my most prized possession,” he says. “I made the tower for my wife as a memorial because I love her, and it just seemed like the right thing to do. It was something I felt I wanted to do. I just had to do it.”
Lisa A. Flam, a regular contributor to TODAY.com, is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.