Larry Nitsche, Vietnam vet, ex-Chicago cop, proud grandpa, dead at 71
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When he was in Vietnam during the hail of attacks known as the Tet offensive, Larry Nitsche handed his flak jacket to a fellow soldier because he was single and the other man had a wife and kids.
At his funeral last month, his wife Mary Nitsche asked for the closing hymn to be “God Bless America.”
“It was the last song played at night in Vietnam,” she said.
Mr. Nitsche, 71, who loved five-mile walks around the lakefront and Millennium Park, died Oct. 23 from a blood clot after knee-replacement surgery, his wife said.
After the war, he came home and began a 21-year career with the Chicago Police Department as an officer and detective. Later, he worked as director of investigations for the City Hall corporation counsel’s office.
Whether working in law enforcement or babysitting — Mr. Nitsche preferred to say he was “director of child care and development” for his three grandchildren — “Larry did things the right way,” said Orland Park police Chief Tim McCarthy, a former neighbor who, as a Secret Service agent, took a bullet protecting President Ronald Reagan.
Mr. Nitsche was, at once, a by-the-book and intuitive detective, an approach that helped him solve cases, said Al Wolf, who worked with him.
“One of Larry’s tenets was: You always go back to the scene,” said Wolf. “No matter when you pick up the case, you always go back to the scene to have a fresh view.”
They did just that when assigned to investigate a body found in the water in the Rustbelt tangle of bridges, factories and shipping inlets near the Chicago Skyway where Chicago starts to curve into Indiana.
“Looming in the background was the Skyway bridge,” Wolf said, “and Larry said, ‘I’ll bet you it’s a suicide. I’ll bet you his car is on top of the Skyway.’ ”
As Mr. Nitsche had predicted, “The car was sitting there, was sitting there over a day,” Wolf said.
They found out the man had been troubled and jumped to his death, Wolf said.
Mr. Nitsche had another tenet, said his daughter Mary Blake: Don’t quit. A four-year soccer player at Mother McAuley High School, she didn’t get picked when she tried out to be a walk-on player as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The following spring, “I remember calling my dad, [telling him] ‘I don’t know, Dad, I don’t know if I want to try out again. I don’t know if I want to put myself out there. It’s very intimidating.’ ”
What he said stayed with her: “Mary, don’t cut yourself. Let them cut you.”
This time, she made the team.
Married for 42 years, the Nitsches met in 1974 at Louise’s bar on the South Side. Already a police officer, “He wrote my name and number on a ticket” ripped from his ticket book, Mary Nitsche said.
Going through his things after he died, she found he’d saved the ticket with her phone number. At the visitation at Heeney’s funeral home, the family displayed it with a label to explain why: “IT STARTED WITH A TICKET.”
Young Larry grew up near 101st and Racine in St. Margaret of Scotland parish. He was about 14 when his father, who had health problems, committed suicide, Mary Blake said. But he retained an optimistic outlook, his daughter said.
“He could have let the war harden him. He could have let being a detective harden him,” she said.
He credited his having gone to Leo High School with keeping him grounded. “He said, ‘I would be on the streets if not for Leo High School,’ ” his wife said.
Mr. Nitsche enjoyed coffee with friends at Beverly Bakery and Cafe. It used to take him a long time to mow the lawn. He kept turning the mower off to talk with neighbors and friends driving by.
And, “He loved a clean car,” said Mary Blake. Sometimes, he’d visit the car wash three times a day, taking his own car, his wife’s and his daughter’s.
Mr. Wolf is also survived by his brother Walter and sisters Ellen and Trudy Sullivan.