Leominster Veterans Memorial Center
John Sheehan 2017 Veteran of the Year

LEOMINSTER — It should be made abundantly clear that John Sheehan is not Santa Claus.

He doesn’t have a big beard, he doesn’t live at the North Pole, and, as far as anyone knows, he doesn’t have any elves.

But he is jolly, and a lot of his good deeds do tend to occur around the holiday season.

“I’ve always loved Christmas and my parents always told me it was better to give than to receive,” he said.

For the last decade Sheehan has been heavily involved with the Marine Corps Reservists’ annual Toys for Tots fundraiser, gathering donated toys and distributing them to local children, but it’s far from the only way he’s helped people since leaving the Marine Corps over 35 years ago.

From 2003 to 2013 he also served as post commander for the local American Veterans chapter, is currently a member of Disabled American Veterans, and has become known as a community service jack-of-all-trades in Leominster over the years.

It’s because of his volunteering that he was selected as the Leominster Veterans Council’s 2017 Veteran of the Year.

Regarding his recent award, Sheehan said: “I am honored but I’m also pretty humbled because I don’t do any more than any other veteran in this city, this community, or this state.”

This isn’t quite the case, according to city Veteran’ Services Director Rick Voutour.

“We actually have a ton of vets who still do so much stuff, so it’s always difficult to figure out who gets selected every year, but he just came to the top because of all the different things he does,” said Voutour.

Apart from his work in various veterans’ groups, Voutour also praised Sheehan as being “instrumental” in the city’s White Cross Twilight Memorial Servive, which honors servicemen and women buried overseas or missing in action.

“He helped refurbished all the crosses, research all the names. He comes every year to cut the grass and do the landscaping,” Voutour said. “He never asks for anything and we never have to ask him to do anything. He’s just the kind of guy you don’t have to ask to help because he’s already there.”

Sheehan served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1976 to 1981, being stationed in Yuma, Arizona, Norway, Japan, and sections of the south Pacific.

“People joke that if you’re transferred that much, you’re either a bad Marine or a really good one. I never did figure it out. I never asked,” he said.

Though he never felt obligated to enlist, Sheehan does come from a family with a long history of military service. His father, John Edward Sheehan, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and two of his uncles served during World War II.

Prior to his family moving to the U.S. from Ireland, his grandfather had also served in the British Army.

“I was too young for the Vietnam War, but I still wanted to enlist. At the time, a friend of mine was also going to enlist so we did it together as kind of a dare. It was a good dare,” he said.

While his father may have had an influence on Sheehan’s decision to join the Marines, he had an even bigger impact on what he did once he left.

When describing his father, Sheehan will tell a story of when he worked at a local grocery store while growing up in Boston. Occasionally his father, who worked as a police officer, would drop by the store to pick up groceries from the manager that he never ended up bringing home with him.

“I knew that he was giving them to homeless people, but I never really knew why he was doing it. I though he was just helping out friends of his, but they were really all veterans who were just down and out,” Sheehan said. “He was my role model.”

For more than a decade now, Sheehan has regularly taken part in the Passion Plunge fundraiser to support Special Olympics Massachusetts. His wintery dives into frozen bodies of water throughout the state have raised thousands of dollars for special athletes.

When his two sons were still in the Boy Scouts, Sheehan also organized visits between scouts and elderly local veterans.

“They would bring cookies, and food, and Christmas cards, and we would go over to visit a lot of them who don’t have families or were in hospice care,” he said.

There may not be any rule requiring veterans to take part in community service, but for people like Sheehan, it’s literally written into what the word “veteran” means.

“I tell people that we’re veterans, or vets, and that stands for Volunteering Every day Together,” he said. “I kind of took those three words and that’s how I’ve tried to mold myself over the years. To give back to the community.”

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53