Larry Sklar had to be lured into visiting the the Syosset Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters on Valentine's Day, February 14. Those who sought to honor the praise-shy Jericho resident for his altruistic spirit were concerned that if he were informed in advance that he had been chosen as the VFW's "Man of the Year," he would have humbly ducked away from the designation.
Commander Bob Ellwood of the Syosset VFW had told Sklar, a member of Jewish War Veterans Post 665, that he wished to orchestrate a charity event involving the VFW - something Sklar has helped set up many times before. But, in reality, the sly commander had set up an ambush so that Sklar, according to battle plan, would have no choice but to surrender to the adulation of applauding VFW members and to the gratitude of a fledgling veterans rehabilitation program.
"Bob knew I wouldn't want to go through all of that...Bob really pulled it off," admitted Sklar, a 53-year-old semi-retired auctioneer.
"Larry, I know you like to go about your business without a lot of ado," remarked Ellwood in a brief speech, presenting a plaque to the surprised philanthropist, who stood alongside his wife, Susan. "But after crossing paths with you on a couple of matters...it became clear that you should be recognized."
In addition to the warm crowd of VFW members was Diana Kilbourn, assistant administrator of the Salvation Army Northport Veterans Residence, a division of the Northport VA Medical Center, where Sklar has often made generous contributions. It was a pleasantly unexpected bonus for the VFW when, after hearing of Sklar's award, Kilbourn made a request to attend the surprise presentation.
"Mr. Ellwood had originally called to inquire about some of the things that Mr. Sklar had done for our veterans. When we learned that they were going to honor him, we asked if we could come to make our own presentation, so that we could show our appreciation," said Kilbourn.
The honor came merely two weeks after Sklar was presented with one of the most prestigious awards for volunteerism and charity that one can receive. On February 1, on the very grounds of the VA Medical Center in Northport, Sklar was inducted into the Chapel of Four Chaplains Legion of Honor. This, according to The Chapel of Four Chaplains, is a distinction given to "individuals whose lives reflect selfless service to the community, nation or humanity without regard to race, religion or creed."
Though it was appropriate that Sklar received the great honor at an institution that has benefited from his kind acts, the actual reason that the ceremony was performed there was because it happens to be the headquarters for Augustus Sheenan, head chaplain of the local region of the Chapel of Four Chaplains. It was he who recognized Sklar as a leader in community service, and nominated the Jericho resident for induction into the Legion. Sheenan sent his recommendation to the organization's main body in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, which agreed that Sklar deserved the honor.
There is an inspiring story behind the name "Chapel of Four Chaplains." In 1943, the troop transport ship U.S.A.T. Dorchester, with 902 men on board, sank after it was struck by torpedoes fired by a German submarine. While the crew was frantically abandoning the doomed vessel, four chaplains, who had been traveling on the ship, each of a different religion, attempted to maintain calm and tend to the wounded. They each gave up their life jackets to save another's life, and all four went down with the ship.
Anyone inducted into the Chapel of Four Chaplains Legion of Honor is supposed to act with the same sense of selflessness as the chaplains aboard the Dorchester. These induction ceremonies take place around the nation during the month of February.
Of all of Sklar's acts, perhaps the one that gained the most attention was when he paid for the transportation of the veterans in the Northport residence to La Viola Italian restaurant in Syosset on Thanksgiving, where a free gourmet dinner was served. Sklar began providing this service after reading an article several years ago in the Syosset-Jericho Tribune that described the plight of these veterans, who had no way of getting to the charity dinner.
"To think that 30 patients can't come out because nobody has money for a bus is ridiculous," said Sklar. "That bus was so reasonable at $160. So I paid for the bus."
However, Sklar's charitable efforts have exceeded far beyond one annual act of holiday goodwill. For the VA Medical Center alone, Sklar has coordinated barbecues, donated food and distributed Christmas gift bags. And when the Salvation Army Veterans Residence opened its doors on the Northport premises for the first time last year, Sklar helped make sure that its start would be a smooth one.
Intended as a place where homeless veterans could temporarily live while acquiring vocational skills and emotional support, the residence opened in July of 1997. Currently, it holds 19 veterans, most in the 40-60 age range. Upon receiving state certification, it will be able to accommodate over 80 veterans.
Because it does not receive governmental funding, the residence relies on donations. "Mr. Sklar provided us with needed kitchen equipment, and he arranged to pay for transportation himself so that our veterans could have Thanksgiving dinner out," said Kilbourn. When the residence needed to clean up the wooden and metal scraps remaining after construction was completed last summer, "he offered to use his own business trucks to pick them up and then dump them, without any charge. So he's definitely been nothing but a blessing and godsend in getting this building ready."
In addition to his work with veterans, Sklar participates in Habitat for Humanity, an organization that builds homes, and also coordinates charity drives with his temple, North Shore Synagogue.
Sklar began concentrating on assisting struggling war veterans after his friend encouraged him to visit the nursing home of the VA Medical Center in Northport several years ago. Sklar distributed gift bags to the elderly patients. The bags contained a watch that year, which particularly delighted one of the patients.
And that patient said, according to Sklar, "Now I have a gift to give my grandson when he comes to visit me."
But later that day, "We found out that his grandson hadn't been there in 13 years," said Sklar.
This sad revelation caused Sklar to ponder the plight of some of America's oldest living heroes. "These are people who are just lying around waiting to die...These are veterans who have no family. [They're] the people that served this country whoare now forgotten," said Sklar.
"There aren't enough young people helping older people, and a young person can come in and change the life of an older person," attested Sklar. "It helps put smiles on their faces."
And that, rather than any award, is what really counts. "I don't need another award. I've got enough awards," said Sklar.