Don’t drive in Boston, Lawrence Henry once warned. What he meant was, don’t try to drive to his lovely old neighborhood of Charlestown if you’ve never driven there. It once took a friend some two hours to get to Larry’s house from Logan Airport, “a scant eight city blocks away.” Sure enough, my Logan cabby also got lost when last Sunday he tried to deliver me to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Devens Street for the memorial service in honor of Larry. If not for the help of one of those “legendarily Irish” denizens of Charlestown, as Larry once described the place, we’d still be circling.
Larry, our longtime columnist who died of kidney failure at 61 last February 9, would have loved the service, in a church in a town where he’d lived ten of his happiest years. First off, it was a religious event, a mix of the Episcopal fare he treasured and the Bible Church seriousness he had come to rely on once Episcopal clergy had fallen under the spell of “new age pabulum.” St. John’s rector did his best on Sunday, helped along by Chip Thompson, pastor of New England Bible Church in Andover and a close friend in Larry’s final decade. Concelebration made wonderful sense, a last tribute to Larry’s individuality and directness.
And also a reflection of his loving, kind, warm and decency-exuding wife, Sally Dungan, who organized and hosted the event, gave one of the readings, and discreetly joined the choir for several of the hymns, including “To Die No More,” sung by the church’s Shape Note Singers, just the sort of (Southern) regionalism Larry would have known about. Naturally, Sally deferred to Larry’s friends when it came to the main tributes.
Robert Lass and Larry went back more than 30 years to their rock band days. He spoke of Larry’s unconditional generosity, perseverance through years of life-threatening illness, and his capacity for friendship in the toughest times. It still greatly tormented him to recall Larry’s “having to live with that level of pain” during his final months.
Chris Felknor met Larry at AA and remains in awe of him. A “true American original,” he called him. Larry told him he’d bang out a column in an hour — the only way to make money. He did everything fast — even shaved in the shower. What if he missed a spot? “I’ll get it next time.” At age 40 Larry taught himself to play the clarinet. Next thing you know the two were performing (Chris on guitar) in nursing homes. At the post-service reception, a laptop next the one showing family photos ran a video of Larry and Chris in duet action from not that long ago, Larry’s clarinet sounding mellow and sweet with life.
Last fall Larry wrote a column about his circle of friends, who included a woman he named only Claudia. She spoke at the service as well, and was just as Larry had described her, “truly beautiful, blonde, with a big gleaming smile.” Her full name is Claudia Ellermann. In 1991, she and her husband had moved to Boston. They didn’t know anyone, and she came by St. John’s since it was close to their home. Its “worn cushions” didn’t exactly appeal, but as she was sneaking out who but Larry stopped her and invited her and her husband to Thanksgiving — the first of many such shared holidays. A newcomer to America, she was introduced by Larry to the kindness of strangers.
Sometimes he just introduced himself. That’s how Jeff Jacoby, the long-suffering conservative columnist at the Boston Globe, met Larry — over the phone in 1998, when Larry called him out of the blue. They met maybe six times since then, communicating mainly through their columns, and as fathers of young sons hitting it off even more so. Jeff spoke most generously about Larry’s steady stream of American Spectator writings — he’d recently been rereading them and reminded again of not only Larry’s infinitely wide range of interests but also “the astonishing clarity of his prose.”
St. John’s rector, though he never met Larry, did mention Larry’s “love of words.” This might explain why Psalm 116 was recited at the service, and why Pastor Thompson zeroed in on verse 15, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” How can that be? Why would God take something so precious away from this world? Because in this case it meant the lifting of pain and the promise of the heavenly reward awaiting Larry. God’s plan, Thompson concluded, is not of this world. Larry would have been the first to concur.