RICHMOND — This Veterans Day is bittersweet for Larry and Rita Dearborn.

It’s the last time that Larry, an 80-year-old career Army veteran, plans to drive his flag-emblazoned Lincoln limousine in a Veterans Day parade. Rust and high mileage will soon force him to retire the vehicle that has embodied his broader patriotic mission for more than a decade.

It’s also the first anniversary of his engagement to Rita, 54, his second wife, whom he married last Valentine’s Day after a chance meeting at Sam’s Club blossomed into an unlikely love story.

“I love her with all my heart,” Dearborn says, his Maine accent tinged by 21 years of international service. “She’s a wonderful lady. I never thought I’d find another woman who was as patriotic as my first wife and who liked to ride beside me.”

In the last decade or so, Dearborn has driven his eye-catching limo thousands of miles across the state and beyond to honor Maine soldiers of the past and present. “God Bless America” and other patriotic songs blast from exterior speakers. His wife – initially it was his first wife, Gisela – tosses small stuffed animals to kids standing along parade routes.

Thanks to a $2,500 paint job, Dearborn’s rolling American flag is a gleaming outward sign of everything that’s important to him. A bald eagle dominates the hood, red-and-white stripes unfurl along the rear quarter panels and the names of the 53 Maine soldiers who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq are listed on side windows.

“I love the flag, I love my country and I love the troops. I know what them guys go through,” says Dearborn, who retired in 1973 as a platoon sergeant after serving during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

‘DOESN’T WANT PEOPLE TO FORGET’

Dearborn says he has driven his 24-foot-long Lincoln limo about 15,000 miles a year, mostly as a member of the Maine Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle escort group. He has appeared in about a dozen community parades each year, attended most troop send-offs and arrivals, delivered political dignitaries and elderly veterans to special events and joined many military funeral processions.

“He doesn’t want people to forget,” Rita Dearborn explains. “He says he wants to make sure they get a homecoming because when he came home from Vietnam, he got nothing.”

He once accompanied the motorcycle group when it escorted a delivery of Christmas wreaths on a 1,500-mile round trip from the Down East town of Harrington to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. And he’s often taken the limo for rides around local towns, to nursing homes, to the veterans hospital in Togus and through the Wal-Mart parking lot. His still-broad chest swells with pride when he recalls the way people of all ages cheer or salute. That’s the reaction he usually gets.

“I just love it,” Larry Dearborn says. “So many patriotic people out there waving, thumbs up, victory signs. I’ve only had two (people) – in the many years I’ve been doing this – that have stuck their (middle) finger up at me.” He smiles. “Everybody else loves it.”

Now, Dearborn figures his secondhand limo has well over 300,000 miles on it – the odometer hasn’t worked right for years – and his mechanic warned him in August that the vehicle likely won’t pass inspection next year. Lately, even the CD player and exterior speakers have been giving him trouble.

“There’s so much rust coming out now, it’s falling apart,” Dearborn says. “I have to give it up because I can’t keep spending my money this way. I could be a millionaire now if it wasn’t for all this patriotic stuff.”

Since Dearborn moved back to Maine in the 1970s, he says he has spent several hundred thousand dollars promoting his uncomplicated brand of patriotism, including an estimated $60,000 fixing up and keeping a limo on the road. A former local and state commander of the American Legion, he has encouraged cities and towns across Maine to display the American flag on utility poles along their main streets. Often, he just gives flags away.

American flags are everywhere at the couple’s home on North Street in Richmond; they live in a trailer that sits where Dearborn’s boyhood house once stood. Three full-size poles in the front yard display American flags. In the driveway, beside the limo, is a Ford SUV that Dearborn had shrink-wrapped in an American flag motif, with anti-Obama and pro-LePage stickers on the back window.

UNEXPECTED LOVE BLOSSOMS

Dearborn, who has six children, 15 grandchildren and 25 great-grandchildren, also frequently wears patriotic and veterans-group clothing, which is what caught Rita Barbioni’s eye when she spotted him at the Sam’s Club in nearby Augusta in May 2013.

Larry Dearborn was there to buy flowers for his first wife’s grave. Gisela Dearborn died in May 2012 – 56 years after the couple were married in Germany, where she was born and he was stationed for several years. Barbioni, a former postal carrier and mother of two, had been single for a decade after two failed, abusive marriages. She wasn’t looking for a relationship.

But she noticed the tall, older man in the bright blue jacket. It had a large, embroidered logo patch on the back representing the Uniformed Services Disabled Retirees, a veterans group. A self-described caretaker, she had provided temporary housing for homeless veterans, and many of her family members have served in the military.

“He was just standing there,” Rita Dearborn says of their first meeting. “I said, ‘Hey, nice patch.’ We got to talking and he pulled out his cellphone to show me photos of all the young women he was dating.”

He asked her out to dinner that night, but she declined. He gave her his business card and looked her up on Facebook. She started seeing his car around Augusta, where she lived, and stopped to talk with him one day after he had gotten a pedicure at a salon in her neighborhood.

“He asked me out for breakfast right there and I said yes, as long as it wasn’t a date,” Rita Dearborn says. “We’ve been together ever since. He’s the first man I’ve ever been in love with. He put the ‘man’ back in gentleman and he’s so romantic.”

Their relationship has drawn support from friends and family members, and curiosity from others. She remembers a time, before they were married, when a Hannaford supermarket bagger asked if her father wanted paper or plastic.

“I said, ‘He ain’t my father. I’m just using him for sex,’ ” Rita Dearborn recalls, sharing a story she clearly loves to tell.

LOYAL WIFE, LIMOS AS SIDEKICKS

Then last Nov. 11, before they rode in Bangor’s Veterans Day parade, Larry Dearborn cleared his throat and spoke up. They were having breakfast with other Patriot Guard Riders at The Coach House restaurant in Brewer.

“I said, ‘Hey, everybody, give me your attention.’ Then I asked her. She nearly fell over,” Dearborn says. Clearly, this is one of his favorite stories.

Again, she said yes. Soon after, they got matching tattoos on their left forearms – a red heart pierced with an arrow and wrapped with a banner. His says “Rita” and hers says “Larry.” A few weeks later, on Feb. 14, they were married in a church ceremony.

Since then, Rita Dearborn has become her husband’s biggest cheerleader. She’s amazed by how much he’s done over the years to support veterans and promote patriotism, and she’s disappointed that he’ll soon have to give up his limo.

Larry Dearborn isn’t looking forward to it, either. He’s done it once before. This is actually his second flag-adorned limo. The first one – a secondhand, 22-foot-long, 1988 Lincoln that he bought shortly after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 – lasted until 2008. He had a hard time leaving that one at the salvage yard.

“When I drove away, I looked back at that car and it brought tears to my eyes,” Dearborn recalls. “It was like leaving behind one of my sons. It was saying, ‘Oh, Daddy, don’t leave me.’ ”

Dearborn planned to drive his current limo, a 1997 model, in Bangor’s Veterans Day parade this year – until he fell outside a restaurant Friday and cracked a rib. Left bruised and sore, he instead plans to ride in Richmond’s 11 a.m. parade, with Rita by his side, tossing out stuffed animals.

Afterward, he’ll put the limo in storage for the winter and take it out in the spring for the Memorial Day parade. He hopes to appear in several other events throughout the summer before making one last run in the annual Richmond Days parade in late July. After that, the limo is heading for the crusher at the salvage yard. He doesn’t plan to buy another.

In the meantime, Dearborn has cut back on his daily jaunts around town and random visits to nursing homes and Wal-Mart parking lots, hoping to stretch the limo’s time on the road.

“I’ve backed off a bit because I’m kind of brokenhearted,” Dearborn says. “I’ve got to get my emotions in control because I’ve got to give her up.”