On April 14, 1986 when the doors of St. John Center opened, Larry Otto stood on the front steps to welcome guests. He knew many of them by name already.
Larry spent months cleaning and preparing the old St. John’s church for opening day. He spent the two years before that leading a coalition of volunteers toward the creation of both St. John Center and the Coalition for the Homeless. In the years that followed opening day, Larry would chair the board of both the organizations and he would dedicate much of his time to meeting the needs of people who had no place to call home.
Larry, a chemical engineer, moved to Louisville with his family to work for DuPont chemical. “Sue Speed was one of our first friends here,” said Nancy Otto, Larry’s wife of 66 years. “She may have even met us at the airport!” The Ottos joined Christ Church Cathedral immediately upon relocating to Louisville and became very involved in the church community.
“Other people were coming downtown to go to the theatre or restaurants,” said Nancy. “We were coming to church and to volunteer at church.” Nancy was involved in many ministries at Christ Church Cathedral including a clothes closet.
“In the early 80’s,” she said, “more and more homeless men started coming to the clothes closet at the Cathedral and they needed a cup of coffee and a place to sit down.” Christ Church Cathedral responded to the need by opening a day shelter a few mornings a week in a basement room.”
Finally, Nancy remembers, “Larry decided he better talk to Harvey Sloane. Something had to happen.”
At Larry’s urging and with the support of members of both Christ Church Cathedral and the Cathedral of the Assumption, then-Mayor Harvey Sloane launched a Homeless Task Force. Over the course of two years, the task force examined the conditions of homelessness in Louisville. At the top of the list of recommendations the Task Force delivered to the Mayor was the creation of a day shelter so that people experiencing homelessness had someplace to go during the day when the overnight shelters closed.
Father Vernon Robertson, the then-pastor of St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church arranged the sale of the old St. John Catholic Church to the task for one dollar. And so Larry assembled a team of volunteers to clean and prepare the church to become St. John’s Day Shelter. “What was impressive to me,” Nancy recalled, ”was the number of people who fell into line. There was a need for work and they did it!”
Nancy remembers a day in late 1985 when she was standing at Christ Church Cathedral with Larry. “He told me that had found someone to lead St. John Center. Sister Kathleen Sheehan. ‘Oh Larry,’ I said, ‘they are going to eat her up!’ Larry shrugged and said ‘Well… let’s just wait and see.’”
Once again, Larry’s best instincts were right! Sister Kathleen led St. John Center for 22 years and no one ever ate her up!
Over time, Larry’s primary focus was on advocating for and serving people experiencing homelessness in Louisville. “My dad was an under-the-radar, introverted kind of guy. He didn’t want recognition,” said Anne Walker – a current St. John Center volunteer and Larry’s daughter. “His involvement really drove him toward early retirement.”
From the day St. John Center opened in 1986 to the end of Larry’s life in 2018, he remained a faithful volunteer and friend. I was volunteer coordinator here in the late 1990s and remember the way Larry greeted every person who walk in the door by name. If he didn’t know a guest’s name, he would quietly name time and space to talk to him and learn a little bit about him. He was dedicated, caring, and generous.
Remembering Larry’s commitment to St. John Center and the people experiencing homelessness in this community, Nancy said simply “It was a good life and it meant something.”
Jane Walsh is the Director of Mission Advancement at St. John Center.