In this photo from the 2019 Veterans Day ceremony, Larry Della Vecchia adjusts the microphone so he can be heard. He has served as the organization’s senior chaplain since it was founded in 1997. SUBMITTED

When Larry Della Vecchia moved to Sun City Hilton Head in 1997, little did he know what kind of an impact he would have. He just thought he and his wife Carol were moving away from the snow and the ice of Long Island.

“I had retired, it was getting expensive in New York, and we decided to get somewhere warmer,” Della Vecchia said. “I saw an ad about a big meeting on Sun City. I went and came home with two bags of junk with all the information.”

After talking about it with Carol, they decided to set up an appointment and come down to the new development.

“They showed us the models, which was all they had. For some reason, we said ‘We’re going to go back and let you know.’ But they don’t let you go. As soon as we got back, they called us, so we said let’s go back for the free seven days. We fell in love with it, checked around and said, ‘We’re going to buy this house.’”

They returned to Long Island, put their house on the market and moved south.

“The weather is beautiful, even if you get a little rain. There are a lot of people. You make friends easy and they’re from all over,” he said. “There’s so much to do, you can belong to a dozen clubs if you want to put all your time in.”

He might not belong to a dozen clubs, but what he has done in Sun City and outside the gates has certainly been a blessing – as well as entertaining.

“When we were first down here, we went to Maye River Baptist Church,” Della Vecchia said. “When we mentioned to the pastor that Carol and I did a clown ministry back home, he said that would be great,” said Della Vecchia. “We started doing it, and the kids were happy to be clowns and some of the grownups, too. We’d put something on in church once or twice a year. And then Carol and I and some of the others who could take the time would go to the hospitals, like in Savannah and around here, too, to entertain the children.”

Even without the clowning, every day is an adventure, according to Carol.

“We were both at a Parent Without Partners dance. That’s how we met. I was dancing with this nice-looking fellow named John. He was Larry’s friend, which I didn’t know at the time,” she said. “I see this little guy on the other side of the dance floor and he was yelling ‘John, John,’ acting like an idiot, which is par for the course. We get off the dance floor, and he comes running up to us, and said dance with me.”

She and Larry started talking.

“I said to him, ‘John is nice guy.’ Then he said, ‘Yeah, but he’s still in love with his wife.’ Well, that cut the rug out from under John, but come to find out that wasn’t true at all!”

Larry and Carol hit it off. “We only went together for six months and we got married,” she said.

“He had five kids. When I went home and told my mother I met this nice man who had five kids, she said ‘What? Get rid of him!’ But my father said, ‘He’s an Italian. What do you expect?’ So he had five kids, I had two, and then we had one. Eight is enough. We’ve been married 43 years.”

Della Vecchia has stayed busy inside the Sun City gates all these years. “I got involved right away with the vets. The Sun City Veterans Association had just been formed. They had jobs that needed filling, and one of the things was a chaplain. I was sitting there, and two guys I was with put my hand in the air,” he said. “I was all of a sudden a chaplain for a group I hadn’t even joined yet.”

That was in 1997 and he has been chaplain ever since.

“Larry’s one of a kind, that’s for sure,” said former SCVA Commander Dan Peters. “We’d be in a discussion, with everybody tense and arguing about something. He could come in and start to tell us a story, then forget where he was going, then come back and finish it. That would break everybody’s tension.”

Della Vecchia has probably given the benediction for every Memorial Day and Veterans Day ceremony held in Sun City. Sometimes it was a challenge when it was cold or especially when it was very hot, but there has always been on consistent need – the microphone would have to be lowered to accommodate his height, especially when the commander or the guest speaker was 6 foot 4 inches.

Before the ceremonies began, though, it was Della Vecchia who made sure there was someone guiding people to their seats, and that the cadets from the Bluffton High School JROTC unit had programs to hand out.

“I’d see him talking to people on Veterans Day, and when we had to lay a veteran to rest, he would be dealing with the families,” Peters said.

When he isn’t serving as the vets’ chaplain, he has often been found on stage in shows produced by the Sun City Community Theatre. Because of the many roles he has played, almost everybody involved has a “Larry story.”

“I got involved with the theatre that hadn’t quite been formed yet. I jumped right in,” he said. “I enjoyed doing the rabbi in ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ especially since I come from a Catholic background.”

Director Anrose Perlstein asked him to play the part of the rabbi, he said.

“I said, ‘But what do you do with the blessing?’ She said you bow down but you don’t do the cross when you come up. I did it the first time, but I remembered not to do it on stage. I enjoyed being in Fiddler,” Della Vecchia recalled.

Perlstein said the feeling was mutual.

“He was wonderful. We used to kid him all the time, because I know he’s extremely religious. He was wonderful in the part, played it beautifully. It was perfect,” she said. “With Larry, he just walks out on stage and people laugh. We adored having him. His personality being as sweet and loving as he is came through as the rabbi.”

His character roles have even extended to Church of the Palms, where he is a member.

“We have an annual Advent evening called ‘The Night with Saint Nicholas,’ who is the patron saint of the church. Saint Nicholas comes to tell us the story of secret giving,” said Pastor Pete Berntson. “We had elves come to help, so we got Larry a costume complete with pointed ears and a hat and pointed shoes – a full green outfit. He was to be one of the tiny elves, but everybody thought he was a leprechaun, so it didn’t come out as planned. We had to keep explaining that he was an elf. He has played multiple sidekick roles for our Sunday school. We call him the rabbi here, too.”

Sometimes the role calls for Della Vecchia to occasionally say something he would normally never say. Fellow thespian Bob McCloskey, who played Tevia in the same “Fiddler” performance, recalled a separate production that stopped the show.

“Larry was performing in a monthly skit with Irene Reed and had to say a line that was so unlike Larry that he had to have second thoughts about it,” McCloskey said. “Regardless, he soldiered on in the part and, when Irene’s character shared with Larry’s character a disparaging remark she had heard about Larry, he let it rip. ‘Well, you can tell (so-and-so) to go *^%& in his hat!’ It took four minutes by the clock to get the audience re-settled.”

McCloskey also had two observations about Della Vecchia.

“He has a way with the ladies, and never hesitates to demonstrate his considerable charm when the opportunity presents itself,” he said.

“He is also one of the most thoughtful and considerate individuals I have ever met. Always with a kind word, and when he asks how you are, he means it.”

Peters agreed: “He just has a way of making them feel comfortable. I never saw Larry not being kind or happy. He’s a very steady person.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.