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By BILL FALLON
Somewhere between the halls of Montezuma and the shores of Tripoli lies a heart of gold.
In Westchester County, Lu Caldara is the Marine who, with help from his friends and his wife, proves the point by making the holidays brighter each year for 10,000 children via 30,000 brand-new gifts.
“I love life,” the 72-year-old retired U.S. Marine Corps gunnery sergeant says. “I don’t look for all the problems. I look at the positive things.”
Caldara retired from IBM as a financial systems programmer and analyst in 1985 after 28 years with Big Blue. He was a Marine for 20 years and is a member of half a dozen Marine organizations still, plus the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and the Korean War Veterans of America.
Caldara is now a senior recreation leader for the Westchester County Parks Department. He’s got the jacket. He’s got the enthusiasm and the smarts. The county’s got a winner. “I work with senior activities, picnics, events at the County Center, the slam-dunk basketball, cheerleading …” The list trails off into the ether, the point made.
He got involved with the Marine Corps Toys for Tots program in 1965 and has served as county coordinator since 1991. His move to coordinator coincided with the end of Desert Storm when the Marine unit that had been based in New Rochelle found itself stationed in Albany. “I stepped up with the Marine Corps League to fill the void,” he says. But, being a Marine, he was not an army of one. “I’m a facilitator,” he says, citing a Toys for Tots cadre of five Marine volunteers, the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, the Westchester County Detachment of the Marine Corps League, citizen volunteers and companies large and small to keep the joy flowing. “I can’t do it without everybody.”
His wife is Anne, nee Feury. They married in 1960. “A valued partner,” he says. “I’m always on the road and she takes care of the home staff, fielding the phone calls.”
Variety, according to Caldara, is an ongoing dilemma for Toys for Tots. “People think about toys and they’re immediately thinking of the little kids, 3 to 8 years old. But we give to children from infants to 18.” He said there is always an acute need for items that can brighten the holidays for teenage girls and toward that end he offers suggestions for new, unwrapped gifts for teens on a printout: clothes in general and specifically T-shirts, sweat suits, scarf-and-hat sets; books and dictionaries; board games; electronics; watches; and sports gear. Money donations are accepted with checks made payable to Marine Corps League, P.O. Box 505, White Plains, NY 10602. The money goes to purchase new, unwrapped gifts.
Drop sites for gifts had yet to be determined at press time. They will be posted on the WHUD radio Web site. Westy Storage of Elmsford has offered both transportation and storage space to facilitate the efforts that amount to a fairly robust recreation of the North Pole in New York, although given Caldara’s clean-cut, posture-perfect Marine bearing, he might be too anti-sedentary to play Santa Claus.
Since 1965, Caldara has been making a difference in youths’ lives other than with holiday gifts as commander of the Young Marines of White Plains. “It’s the longest continuously running Young Marines in the nation,” he says. “A lot of the kids” age 8 to high school graduates “come from single-parent families. They come on their own because they want to belong.” The group has no physical restrictions. Caldara notes he has now seen the children of children he first mentored embrace the program. He ticks off the benefits of the Young Marines: “Physical fitness, self-confidence, respect, leadership. It really broadens their horizons and we see real results in the community. A lot of the Young Marines go through the program and join the Marines. We have two Iraq vets who went through the program one Navy and one Marine who are now youth leaders.” The Young Marines and their adult volunteer supervisors are just back from a pair of camping trips to Cape Cod and northeastern Connecticut. (Visit www.mclwestchester.org.
All this activity begs the question: Why does Caldara do it the toys, the youths, weekends given to campouts? His answer comes quickly and possesses the directness Americans like in their Marines, and perhaps expects of the man named National Marine of the Year in 1995: “The satisfaction of making a difference.”