A Life: Oliver Lorenzo Zullo, 1924 — 2018; ‘People Just Don’t Know How Much Larry Gave’

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    Photographed on Nov. 2, 2011, Larry Zullo, of Newport, N.H., helps organize military honors for veterans' burials. "If I stay in good health like I am now, I'll keep doing it," he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News – James M. Patterson

  • Larry Zullo enlisted in the Marines in February 1943, after turning 19. (Family photograph) Family photograph

  • Lillian and Larry Zullo, married for 70 years, in an undated family photograph. (Family photograph)

  • Larry Zullo of Newport, N.H., leafs through obituaries clipped from newspapers of veterans he has given military funerals as part of an American Legion honor guard, Thursday, November 3, 2011. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 12/10/2018 12:13:33 AM
Modified: 12/10/2018 12:13:34 AM

Newport — It didn’t matter the weather. Bitter cold, rain, sweltering heat — members of the American Legion Post 25 would faithfully arrive at the cemetery and wait a respectful distance until given the nod by the officiant to proceed.

Led by Larry Zullo, the veterans would come forward with flags and rifles. After a folded American flag was presented to the family of the deceased, the men would fire a 21-gun salute under Zullo’s orders. The bugler played Taps, then turned about and blew Echo Taps. The spent shells were gathered as souvenirs for the family and the squad quietly dispersed, having done their duty once more to honor a fellow veteran.

It was a scene that played out hundreds of times at Newport-area grave sites over the last several decades, and the one constant presence since the end of World War II was Zullo.

As war raged in Europe and the Pacific 75 years ago, Zullo enlisted in the Marines in February 1943, after turning 19. At boot camp he was picked to be part of the squad for military funerals and continued the duty at artillery school in Virginia and aboard the USS John Hancock, an aircraft carrier, where he served in the Pacific theater.

“When I came home with the (American) Legion, I was part of the crew that fired,” Zullo said in a 2011 interview with the Valley News.

More 70 years later, Zullo was still at it in his 90s, gathering Legion members for military burials whenever he got the call.

“We do it in all kinds of weather,” Zullo, the Post firing squad commander for 35 years, told the Valley News. “They want a military funeral, we give them one.

“These guys put their lives on the line. We take care of Grantham, Croydon, Sunapee all the surrounding towns. We made a commitment, so I’m keeping my end of it.”

At the time of the interview, Zullo, who died on Sept. 29, 2018, at 94, estimated he had participated in or commanded hundreds of military burials since returning from the war and joining the American Legion Post 25.

The “commitment” he spoke of was forged later with fellow World War II veteran Tony Kulesza, who died in 1988.

“ ‘Any veteran, whether they served during war or not, who wants a military funeral will have one as long as I am here,’ ” fellow Legion member Peter Lovely remembers Zullo saying.

“There was none finer,” Lovely said of Zullo.

Zullo’s devotion to veterans knew no bounds. He raised money for a monument on the Newport Common with the names engraved of all veterans from Newport who died during their military service — from World War I through the current conflicts.

“He did all the funerals, all the Memorial Days until he couldn’t do it anymore. He was very committed,” said Zullo’s daughter, Lisa Bellman, of Newmarket, N.H.

But it wasn’t just during the public observances and military burials that her father looked out for vets, she said.

“Over the years, there were elderly men in town and he took care of them,” Bellman said. “If they had to be put in a nursing home, he’d get them into the nursing home. He would go visit them all the time. They were just people he stepped up to help because they didn’t have families. Or their families weren’t around here. That was just who he was.”

His close friends, Betty and Tony Maiola, said few were aware of all that Zullo did for people in town.

“People just don’t know how much Larry gave, money, food anything they needed, Larry was there,” Tony Maiola said.

Added Betty, “he always had a smile. He was very active and cared about everyone. We loved Larry. It makes me sad just to hear his name.”

Zullo is also credited with keeping a Civil War era cannon in the Legion’s possession by turning down an offer of $20,000 for it the 1990s, when he was Post commander. About 20 years later, the same cannon was dedicated in Zullo’s name for his years of service with the Legion.

“You will never find anyone more dedicated to veterans than Larry was,” fellow Legion member Artie Demeis said. “He showed me the dignified way of doing military funerals.”

Bellman said her father had an all-in type of personality. He didn’t do things halfway, whether honoring veterans or raising money for the senior center.

“When he got involved in anything, whether it was his job or the Legion, he overdid it,” Bellman said. “He became obsessive-compulsive about it. He was very committed.”

Born to immigrant parents in 1924, Zullo grew up poor on Tremont Street in Claremont with his 11 siblings: six sisters and five brothers, four of whom also served during World War II. His father, a logger, emigrated from Italy with his family in the late 19th century when he was 7. He would return to Italy, but while there was warned by his father not to stay, as what became World War I was about to break out, Zullo told Joan Willey of Newport in a 1995 interview on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II.

In the 1930s, the home country beckoned again, but this time the circumstances were entirely different.

“My father got a letter from Mussolini asking the family to move back to Italy,” Zullo recounted in the interview. “Mussolini wanted my father’s six sons for his Army.”

But the request was never given a second thought. “We were born here. We were Americans,” Zullo said in the interview, which appears in Jayna Huot Hooper’s book on Newport history: Celebrating Community Newport, N.H. 1761-2011 250 Years and Beyond.

Tony Maiola grew up with Zullo in Claremont and also served in the Marines, though he was in Europe.

“Larry and I were close, born 14 days apart,” said Maiola. “His mother and my mother were from the same village in Italy. Our families were very close and we became good friends. We got along very good and I really miss him.”

Zullo’s start in life became a source for some gentle ribbing by the family, Bellman said.

“We used to make fun of him and say he started out in prison,” she said. “They were so poor, my grandmother was making moonshine and selling it and during Prohibition. The way my father use to tell it, the neighbors were jealous because she was making money so they ratted on her. So she got put in the county farm, I think for a very short time. But she had just had him and she was breastfeeding so he had to go to the farm. So we used to make fun of him that he started out in jail.”

During the war, Zullo, who attained the rank of corporal, was a gunner on the USS Hancock, which participated in a number of important battles as the Allies took control of Pacific Islands from the Japanese. After Japan surrendered in August 1945, Zullo, in handwritten notes about his war experiences, said he was among the first Marines to set foot on Japanese soil.

“Within a few hours, Marines from my platoon raised the first American flag on Japan,” Zullo wrote.

He received several commendations for his service and was discharged in November of that year.

After the war, Zullo came back to the area and became a salesman and staff manager for John Hancock, selling life insurance for 44 years. He married Lillian S. Elfstrom, a high school classmate, in 1946 and they shared 70 years together before her death in February 2017.

Bellman said her parents lived in a small apartment in Newport while her dad built a home on Summer Street, where they lived for eight years before moving to Park Street, on the Newport Common.

Though both Lisa and her brother, James, recall their father working a lot in the evenings, so they did not see him much during the week, but he nevertheless found time for family.

“When I was little I went everywhere with him,” Bellman said. “Sometimes I went hunting, just to ride with him. We had a hunting camp (in Acworth, N.H.) and he taught me how to shoot.”

Two houses down from the Zullos lived Patricia Taylor, who was the same age as Lisa and spent a lot of time with the family growing up.

“I was an only child and did a lot of family activities with them,” Taylor said from her home in Michigan. “I used to go to the hunting camp, ride around in his restored Model T.”

When both her parents died in 1975, Taylor moved in with the Zullos. Two years, later Larry walked Taylor down the aisle at her wedding.

“He was just a really great family man and proud of what he could do for his family,” Taylor said.

Zullo served as a Selectboard member and was awarded Newport’s Outstanding Citizen of the Year Award in 1994.

His other major effort on behalf of Newport was raising money to pay off the mortgage for the Kaarle Lehtinen Senior Center on South Main Street and volunteering there right up until he turned 94. Just like with the Legion, he gave the effort everything he had.

“He was instrumental in getting the center built,” said Willey, who was president of the senior center for 20 years.

Zullo chaired the fundraising committee in the late 1980s and was present for the symbolic burning of the mortgage in 1993.

“He raised most of the money because he knew so many people because of his job,” Bellman said.

And he was not a passive volunteer. Like his work, the Legion and other efforts, he gave all he had. Zullo and his wife came to the center daily to help with lunch and he enjoyed playing cards, dancing, serving meals and more with the seniors.

Zullo made a practice of going into the kitchen.

“He was most helpful,” said Willey. “He brought the seniors their lunch and before he sat down, he made sure everyone had their meal. Larry always wanted to be part of the action.”

Patrick O’Grady can be reached at pogclmt@gmail.com.

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