When Larry Williams began working at Calverton National Cemetery, only a few hundred people were interred there. It was January 1979 and the cemetery had opened just months earlier.
Mr. Williams was 22 years old, fresh out of the Air Force and had been hired as a temporary caretaker.
After four decades and more than 260,000 funerals later, Mr. Williams is set to retire in January as the cemetery’s assistant director.
The 60-year-old Riverhead native has seen change in both his workplace and himself over the years, but one thing has remained constant: his mission to serve his fellow veterans and their loved ones.
“After 38 years, and four years of military, it’s time,” Mr. Williams said,
From the start, Mr. Williams, who still lives in Riverhead, thought about how he could advance in whatever position he held. After becoming a permanent cemetery caretaker, he moved to engineer equipment operator. He’s worked as a committal foreman, interment foreman, grounds foreman and general foreman, learning about the committal process in each job.
Mr. Williams studied at Suffolk County Community College throughout the 1980s, taking classes that would increase his ability to move up the ranks. From 2003 to 2007 he worked as assistant director at Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale before returning to Calverton to work under the same title.
“Larry turned into the golden boy, shall I say,” said Irene Loftus, lead program assistant at Calverton. “He was very smart, he was dedicated and he showed the stuff he had.”
Ms. Loftus has worked at Calverton National Cemetery almost as long as Mr. Williams. She met him 31 years ago and has taken notice of his work ethic and his routines.
For one, his lunch is always prepared for him by his wife of 39 years, Vicki, and it’s always complete with a piece of candy. This type of organization extends far beyond his lunch break, Ms. Loftus said.
“I have to say that Larry is probably the only man that I have known that had a five-year plan for every five years of his entire life,” she said. “I think he achieved everything in his plan. Whenever we would talk about our futures or whatever, we’d say, ‘Go to Larry, he’s got a five-year plan.’<\!q>”
He has stuck to his goals in part due to his dedication and willingness to serve veterans. The other motivator, he said, was trying to provide for and raise a young family, he said.
Mr. Williams takes care in his work to ensure an honorable committal service for veterans and their family members who might be interred at the cemetery. Mistakes can’t be made, he said.
As a veteran himself, he understands to a degree what veterans go through. He always tries to put himself in the shoes of veterans’ families when a loved one is laid to rest, he said.
“If I’m that uncle or cousin watching what the caretakers do, every move they make with my loved one’s casket or remains is important to me,” he said. “We always try to make sure that every burial is handled in a dignified manner.”
Working at the cemetery in his hometown has given Mr. Williams a real opportunity to give back to his community, he said. He also tries to help in other ways, like organizing the annual Stop the Violence Basketball Tournament on Horton Avenue, getting involved in the Clearview Civic Association and serving the East End Voter Coalition.
Seeing his mother, Clara, form the Millbrook Gables Civic Association and become a reverend is part of Mr. Williams’ motivation to be active in his community and church. He said that laid the foundation for him to treat others the way he would want to be treated.
Driving through Calverton’s sprawling grounds last week, Mr. Williams pointed out some of the many changes that have occurred at Calverton, which has become one of the most active national cemeteries currently overseen by the National Cemetery Administration.
“There were only two rows of burials in this section when I first got here back in’79,” he said, pointing out the passenger side window of his car. Driving past rows and rows of headstones, a few people could be spotted carrying Christmas wreaths and flowers to the gravesites.
Mr. Williams was there in the late 1980s when the cemetery began using upright markers instead of flat headstones and in 1996 when it received the Robert W. Carey award for excellence, a top honor handed out each year by the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.
In nearly 40 years of observing what transpires at the cemetery, Mr. Williams found himself getting a lesson in compassion.
“Over time you understand about people in mourning and some of the things they go through,” he said. “You understand that when people are upset they’re not necessarily upset with you. I’ve learned to really deal with people during their emotional moments and show them that I understand.”
While much of Mr. Williams’ career has been carefully pursued according to a plan, he’s not yet entirely sure what retirement will bring, though he is thinking about volunteer opportunities and will remain active in his church, he said.
“To fill his shoes, it’s a big challenge for me,” said Craig Arsell, who will take over as assistant director in January.
Mr. Arsell is following a career path similar to Mr. Williams’, having also worked his way up from a caretaker spot.
“His commitment, his advocacy, knows no bounds,” he said. “I’ll take a page out of his book with that for sure.”
Photo: Larry Williams at Calverton National Cemetery. (Credit: Kelly Zegers)