By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Lou Minchelli’s whimsically designed turtle trinkets were cherished like pieces of fine art.
Over the last five years, countless children and adults in Sea Isle City were elated when Minchelli would ride up to them on his scooter and hand them one of his seashell creations for free.
As much as they loved getting a turtle trinket, the experience of meeting the cheerful man with a broad smile was even better. For them, his simple act of kindness was priceless, people often said.
Minchelli, one of Sea Isle’s most beloved residents, died of cancer Saturday at the age of 93.
“This town was his town. If he had to live anywhere, he would live in Sea Isle,” his daughter, Andrea Freda, said in an interview Sunday while recalling her father’s affection for Sea Isle.
Freda announced her father’s passing on Facebook, prompting an outpouring of love and admiration from the local community in response.
“I am honored to say he was my hero, was the best father, grandfather and great grandfather as well as a good friend to many. He will be missed by all,” Freda wrote on Facebook while thanking everyone for their condolences, prayers and sentiments.
Minchelli, who had been in declining health, died the day after a procession of fire trucks from fire departments throughout South Jersey rolled past his Sea Isle home on 50th Street in honor of the former New York City firefighter.
He served as a New York City firefighter from 1960 to 1982, rising to the rank of lieutenant. After his retirement, he and his wife, Dolly, made Sea Isle their full-time home. They were married for nearly 70 years.
In addition to their daughter, Andrea Freda, the couple also has another daughter, Mary Varacalli, and two sons, Michael and Joey Minchelli.
For Minchelli’s 90th birthday in 2020, his sons surprised him by giving him a shiny red fire truck adorned with personal touches reflecting his firefighting career, including the words “Lt. Lou Minchelli” painted in gold letters.
The fire truck has served as both a showpiece to entertain the children and as a tribute to first responders and members of the military during parades, festivals and ceremonies in Sea Isle. Minchelli would ride in the passenger side, waving and smiling to the crowds as the fire truck would roll down Sea Isle’s streets.
The restored 1975 Mack CF-600 fire truck carries the name of the New York City Fire Department and also includes the numbers of the four fire companies that Minchelli served with in different parts of New York City.
Perhaps most dramatically, the truck is patriotically decorated with an artistic emblem of the American flag, a bald eagle and the words “Never Forget” in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Altogether, about 3,000 people died in the 9/11 attacks. Many of them were New York firefighters and police officers.
Minchelli’s distinguished firefighting career was preceded by his service in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.
During his lifetime, “He wore many hats,” Andrea Freda said of her father.
For 25 years, Minchelli sold hot dogs from a cart on 85th Street in Sea Isle until 2007.
As the patriarch of a close-knit Italian family, Minchelli adored his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. On Easter Sunday, just weeks before he died, he met his last great-grandchild, Sienna Rae Passamondi, Freda said.
In his retirement, Minchelli took up a few memorable hobbies, including making leather purses and wallets. Then he became interested in stained glass and dabbled in sun catchers. He gave them away to family and friends.
But his most notable hobby was his creation of decorative turtle figures from seashells. He would get on his scooter and ride down the Promenade and city streets to hand out the trinkets to adults and children.
“I get such joy and thrill out of giving them away, especially to kids. “I am blessed. There is no doubt,” Minchelli said in a 2021 interview with SeaIsleNews.com.
He said in the 2021 interview that he got the idea to create turtle trinkets when he and his wife were at a store. They saw a box of turtle crafts and Minchelli said he knew he could make them himself to share with people.
By 2021, he had made 5,000 turtle trinkets, he said. At times, he would simply place them around town for people to find.
Following Minchelli’s death, posters took to Facebook to describe their joy in having one or more of his turtle creations.
“I had the pleasure of meeting Lou on the boardwalk this past October. He told me his life story and about Sea Isle. He gifted me with this beautiful turtle,” Trish Coons wrote on Facebook while accompanying her post with a photo of the trinket.
“Thank you, Lou, for brightening the lives of so many people. May you rest in peace. I will forever cherish the memory and the turtle,” Coons added.
Another Facebook poster, Christen Reems, wrote of the pleasure he had in meeting Minchelli and getting one of his turtle trinkets after hearing so much about Minchelli and his creations.
“We stopped at a diner outside of Sea Isle for breakfast,” Reems said of a trip with his father. “Lo and behold Lou was there. His friend was giving out turtles. I had expressed to him how honored I was and how I’d been waiting. He switched it out and gave me this more elaborate one. I walked over to his table and got to meet Lou himself. What an honor! He has touched the lives of so many.”
Andrea Freda said her mother and the rest of the family have been overcome with emotion following the outpouring of love for her father from the residents and visitors of Sea Isle.
“I was so blessed with the responses from the community,” she said. “We know how much he was loved. It was endearing to my mom.”
Services for Lou Minchelli will include a viewing from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 25, at the Godfrey Funeral Home, 644 South Shore Road, Palermo, N.J.
A funeral Mass, but no viewing, will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday, April 26, at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 4308 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City.