A white hat adorned with American flags, hearts and “#1 Grandpa” spelled in red and blue letters lay on a table Friday at the front of the Lewis North Chapel.
Next to it, other weathered ball caps with logos of favorite sports teams, universities and vacation destinations were displayed alongside military and law enforcement mementos of Larry Saunders.
The memorabilia showcased chapters in the life of Lakewood’s first police chief, starting with the letterman jacket he gave his high school sweetheart, Sally, who later became his wife.
A crowd of about 600 people had come to the Joint Base Lewis-McChord chapel to honor the retired Army colonel, who died Jan. 6 while running the trails of Fort Steilacoom Park. He was 67.
Megan Saunders, speaking to those gathered, recalled her parents’ love story and the 50 years they spent together.
The pair met in high school in Okinawa, Japan, where their fathers were stationed. Larry Saunders won his future wife over by improving his grades and being persistent, Megan Saunders said.
They broke up when he was a college freshman on the East Coast. A few years later, when he was considering an engagement to another woman, Larry Saunders’ mother wrote to him advising him what he should be looking for in a future wife.
He realized that Sally embodied all those qualities, Megan Saunders said. He flew across the country to California and showed up on her doorstep as she was getting ready to go on a date with another guy. Twenty-four hours later, they were engaged.
“My grandmother gave my dad his foundation. My mother solidified it,” Megan Saunders said. “She was his first love, his last love.”
He used to say, ‘Being a grandparent is the best thing I have ever done.’
Megan Saunders, daughter of Larry Saunders
All of Lakewood’s past mayors, including its first mayor, retired Lt. Gen. William Harrison, attended the service. So did the current Lakewood City Council, retired Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar, current Police Chief Mike Zaro and law enforcement representatives from across the state.
JBLM’s senior-ranking officer, Lt. Gen. Stephen R. Lanza, presented the American flag to Saunders’ wife. The I Corps commander had worked with Larry Saunders in his efforts to help service members transition out of the military.
“Larry was a team player, but he usually led the team,” said former Lakewood City Manager Andrew Nieditz, who hired Saunders as police chief.
His daughter said Larry Saunders incorporated military customs into parenting.
“Big fish eat little fish,” Megan Saunders said, quoting her father.
“ ‘Big fish eat little fish’ is meant to signify the chain of command. He was the big fish, and Tim and I were not,” she joked.
Larry was a team player, but he usually led the team.
Andrew Nieditz, former Lakewood city manager
Saunders didn’t care if he was stricter than other parents, he was determined to see his children succeed, she said.
He also was “built to serve,” she said explaining that the family realized he would never sit still.
In 2008, Saunders retired from the Lakewood Police Department he helped build and returned to active duty Army. Megan Saunders said she thought he was having a mid-life crisis.
That’s when he explained, “There are no heroes, it’s about everybody doing their part,” she said.
Looking at her three children and nephew, Megan Saunders told them their grandfather’s life was marked by a “fantastic career” and great friends. But he was most proud of his role as their grandfather.
“He used to say, ‘Being a grandparent is the best thing I have ever done,’” she said. “Don’t you forget you were deeply, deeply loved.”