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'He had the softest heart'

Longtime St. Anthony’s Feast organizer and Oceanside resident Al Larsen dies at 78

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During Albert “Al” Larsen’s Aug. 20 funeral Mass at St. Anthony’s Church — a place he dedicated much of his life to, as a volunteer — the Rev. Kirk Reynolds asked the hundreds of people gathered there to raise their hands if Larsen had helped them during his life.

“Almost every hand went up,” said Larsen’s wife, Madeline, fighting back tears. “It was just amazing. He was loved by his community, his friends and his family. He loved life. He loved to help.”

Larsen died on Aug. 15, of heart failure related to a heart attack he suffered last year. He was 78. He spent most of his life in Oceanside, a community that he became involved in and loved, Madeline said.

Al and Madeline met as teenagers at a party. Al approached his future wife confidently, she recalled, and though she was skeptical about giving him her phone number — a lesson she said her mother instilled in her — Al found a crafty way to obtain it: by asking her brother. Madeline said she was shocked when, moments after she met him, he had the number scrawled on his hand. Years later, she found out that Al had noticed her while she was dancing, and told someone at the party that he would marry her. And he did, on Sept. 28, 1963. They would have celebrated their 56th anniversary this month.

After graduating from Holy Cross High School, Al started working in construction, and eventually got a job as a welder for the Long Island Rail Road. The Larsens moved to Oceanside in 1973, and though they were unable to have children, they quickly adopted the community as their own and enjoyed spending time with their 21 nieces and nephews. During his time in construction, Al worked on many skyscrapers in Manhattan and on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which his nieces and nephews affectionately refer to as “Uncle Al’s bridge.”

After moving to Oceanside, the Larxsens joined St. Anthony’s, where Al began volunteering to help organize the feast, and eventually became its chairman for more than a decade. John Fellin, who now runs the event, said he knew Al through volunteer work and from their membership at the Knights of Columbus. Fellin described the 6-foot-2 Larsen as a “gentle giant.”

“He was just a worker,” Fellin said. “He knew that a job had to be done and he got it done. He was never the one to want accolades. . . . He singlehandedly kept the feast running for four or five years when his committee started to dwindle, and was involved in it for decades.”

Fellin recalled that Larsen was also active at the Knights post, repairing and painting the hall, and doing other maintenance to keep it running smoothly. At St. Anthony’s, he took care of the church’s finances, and each year he took the week of the feast off from his job and gathered friends and volunteers to work around the clock to set everything up.

Fellin said that Larsen helped those in need, offering rides to residents who couldn’t drive to doctors’ appointments, and helping those with physical disabilities. “He left a void behind that will be very, very hard to fill,” Fellin said. “You can’t even begin to add up how many people’s lives he touched.”

Kevin Griffin said he knew Larsen for more than 30 years, and became his “right-hand man” in organizing the feast. He added that he and Larsen cooked turkeys for Thanksgiving at the Knights and donated food to soup kitchens together. Larsen also donated his van to an anonymous local family, according to Griffin, so that the mother of a boy with a disability could drive him around with the proper accommodations. He also built a ramp for the boy at their home.

“I like to use the term that he was a giant among men,” Griffin said. “He always wanted to give to the children.”

In addition to being physically tall and a giant in the community, Larsen was described as a man with a magnetic smile and a willingness to help. He was fond of country music, singing, dancing, hunting, golf, gardening and animals.

Irene Giannetti said she knew him for more than 15 years and was taken aback by his stature. “His hands were huge,” she said. “If he grabbed your hand, it was a mitt. Your hand was covered, but he had the softest heart. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for you.” She added that Larsen was drawn to help during the feast because it brought the community together.

Madeline said that her husband feared airplanes, and didn’t leave Oceanside often. “He was never a fan of flying and would avoid it at any cost,” she recounted. “But he had no problem walking across a beam on a skyscraper, because he had control over his life. He was content to be in his home, though. It was hard to get him out of Oceanside.”

About 300 people attended Larsen’s wake at Towers Funeral Home on Aug. 19 and his funeral Mass at St. Anthony’s the following day. He was buried at St John’s Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens.

Madeline said her husband would be remembered in Oceanside. “He was a good example to the community and to the teenagers and to people in general, because he was so involved,” she said. “He was always there.”