Pleasanton Weekly

Cover Story - September 16, 2011

'Scary Larry' retires after 20-year reign of 'terror'

Infamous DMV instructor isn't so scary, after all

by Jessica Lipsky

Young driver-hopefuls in line at the Pleasanton DMV smiled uneasily early this summer at the thought of the legendary man who might be their driving test examiner.

"I hear that he wears a lei and he's really strict," said Allie Dutto, 16.

A few feet behind her in line, Divya Eppiah, who was getting her learner's permit, chimed in with her own warning: "First of all, he's scary -- and it's very unlikely he'll pass you on your driver's test, so you should go somewhere else."

She added that when the time came she planned to be tested at the Walnut Creek Department of Motor Vehicles even though it would mean navigating the twists, turns and right-of-ways in that city.

Larry Chan's reputation obviously preceded him, even among teenagers who have been alive less than the total amount of time he worked as a licensing registration examiner.

Known as "Scary Larry" Valley-wide, Chan was the supposed terror of the Pleasanton DMV for 20 years. But on July 29, he officially retired his clipboard and checklist to "drive into the sunset."

Chan, 63, who has a long ponytail and regularly dons a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, says the legend he leaves behind isn't important.

"I have no control over that. I have no control of my nickname. A couple years ago it kind of bothered me, but now I accept it," he said. "I'm here not to be friends, I'm just here to make sure they don't hurt themselves or other people."

While Chan said he is called Scary Larry because he once "slipped" and called a driver scary, an informal survey of Tri-Valley residents told quite a different account. These drivers also told tales of avoiding the Pleasanton DMV.

"Of course kids want to use my nickname to blame me for their fail. That's natural," said Chan, who was quick to point out that his fail rate last year was 32 percent, right in line with the state average of 30 to 33 percent. "They always tell their friends, 'Scary Larry failed me.' I always say it's not me that failed the test -- it's their driving that failed the test."

Although he accounted for some of the nervousness during the 15-point examination, the thought of driving with Scary Larry made teens at one driving school so anxious that the owners took matters into their own hands to demystify him.

"I had so many students that passed with him, but half get nervous because he's famous as a 'mean man.' Most of the kids have a nightmare about him," said Pari Eshtehardi, office manager and partner at Driversity of Dublin.

Five years ago, the employees at Driversity hung a picture of Chan on their classroom wall with a sign underneath reading: "Larry is our friend."

"We just tried to let them know that he's not so scary. He's very serious and he goes by the book," Eshtehardi said.

Regardless of the origin of his nickname, or the lore it's created, Chan said the job was his calling. After working at Sears Driving School for three years, the San Leandro resident applied to the Pleasanton DMV where he worked at the window for five years before being promoted.

"If you're a cop you may get shot at, if you're a fireman you may have to go into a burning building. I feel like this job is for me even if it's dangerous," he said.

Chan estimated that he gave approximately 25,000 tests over his 15 years and had more than a couple of close calls. Fender-benders happened once or twice a year, so "it's not if you have an accident, it's when."

"Fender benders I can take, but close calls are scary," he said. "I had a major head-on collision where a teenage girl was making an unprotected left turn in front of an oncoming car. The car was coming right toward my door and I thought I was going to die. It hit the front of the door, the windshield shattered, and the axle was broken."

During another test, an elderly woman ran into a light pole when she hit the gas instead of the brake -- an incident that may have been the catalyst for Chan's nickname. This was but one case of many confused drivers.

"The first year I was an examiner, a teenage kid came to the first intersection at a red light and stated, 'Do I have to stop for this red light?' As soon as I said yes, we had to pull over, park and walk back because I did not trust his driving," Chan said.

Close calls and collisions aside, Chan said it was hard to tell whether young drivers got better or worse over the course of his career.

"They stopped driver's ed and training in high schools around here, so only kids with money could take driver's ed, that cuts out a lot of kids," he said, adding that the education process used to be better. "I do think it's beneficial to take driver's ed from a professional rather than a parent because they pick up the bad habits from their parents. Especially if they're from another country, they drive like they're in that country."

Although Chan enjoyed his job, particularly the part where he consulted with the parents of his "drives" about their child's strengths and weaknesses, Scary Larry was looking forward to sleeping in and taking road trips to Southern California and Las Vegas.

"I'll probably miss the coworkers," he said in mid-July. "I look forward to retirement but I am scared because after I clean up the house and paint, I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm thinking about joining a gym.... I don't want to be vegetating."

Chan joked about opening a driving school called "Scary Larry's" in a few years but until then he takes any recognition as the terror of the Tri-Valley in his stride.

"I walked into hamburger place in San Leandro and mentioned that I worked for the DMV and the owner said, 'Do you know a guy named Crazy Harry?' I said, 'No, I work in Pleasanton, do you mean Scary Larry?' And then I pointed to myself and said, 'That's me,' so he bought me my hamburger."


Posted by Oh Mom, a resident of Amador Valley High School
on Dec 14, 2011 at 11:18 am

Oh My Goodness!!! Scary Larry retired. I thought he was named Scary Larry because he almost always failed the boys the first time and passed the girls. I know so many families that happened too, including my own. My kids were not afraid of him. My daughters actually liked him. He seemed to be a nice man. I wish him well in his retirement.

Posted by A Mom, a resident of Donlon Elementary School
on Dec 14, 2011 at 6:07 pm

I had "Scary Larry" for my driver's test when I moved here from Canada. I passed. Was hoping my student would get him this summer when he took his test. Congratulations on your retirement. I hope you do start up a driving school, you have a lot to share with our young people.

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