Written by T. M. Jacobs, Jacobs Writing Consultants
Walking into the Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library at 4820 Leonard Street in Cape Coral is impressive to say the least. The 30,000+ square foot building houses history, uniforms, artifacts, and personal stories from every war. Among the glimpses of military life, both in peace time and war time, there is one treasure who stands out and his name is Ralph Santillo.
The Museum that was Never A Dream
Ralph is one of the founders of the museum. “I never thought it would be this,” he says.
It was just seven years ago that Ralph and his good friend, WWII veteran Stanley Weinberg, put together a program called “Veterans Helping Veterans.” According to Ralph, “It began as a meeting room used once a month, and was open to anyone, not just veterans. It was a place where someone could stop by and talk about opening up a business, changing careers, and get some guidance. Turned out it was mostly attended by veterans.”
The program came about as Stanley wanted to share with others his experience of getting out of WWII. He wanted to tell people “how he got his head together and found direction,” says Ralph. “We wanted to inform soldiers coming out of the service about the GI Bill and provide them with a place to talk.”
The program caught on and was marching forward at record speed. What began as once a month soon turned into once a week, then three nights a week. “We needed a bigger place,” says Ralph. “We located a small meeting room and provided a couple of desks, a computer, and a phone, and it gave a place for veterans to work and get counseling if they needed it.” It was from these meetings that the museum was born.
“When we officially opened up as a veterans’ organization, I brought in and hung up my son’s military uniform,” said Ralph. “I also brought in a picture of me in my uniform and Stanley in his uniform. Next thing you know, everyone is bringing in items and hanging them about the room.” It did not take long before Ralph realized they need a much bigger space.
The group was able to secure a small store front on Del Prado Blvd. Within six months the 1,300 square foot space was full of relics and treasures from former military personnel. The place officially opened on September 11, 2009, but sadly Stanley never had a chance to see the place. Due to illness, he was unable to attend and passed away a couple of months later.
The Bigger Museum
It was time to move and when Lou Simmons mentioned to Ralph that Sweetbay Supermarket was moving, he said Ralph should check it out. “I thought a grocery store at 32,000 square feet was too much,” says Ralph. “But I met with the owners and we struck a sweet deal.” On September 11, 2012 the group opened in their new location, but only a small section of the space was used. It did not take long before they were using the entire building. Ralph says, “we still have enough items that we could fill an additional 20,000 square feet.” There has been a little bit of talk of opening a second museum, and they may have found a location in Ft Myers.
Through the whole process of going from a meeting room to a large museum Ralph says, “We never lost sight of our primary mission and that is working with veterans.”
The museum no longer accepts items on loan, everything must be deeded to the museum. For special events or showcases, some items are lent to the museum for a brief period, but returned to the owners.
The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library also has a traveling museum. It is a large bus that “we pack with history,” says Ralph, “and visit schools. We try to visit one school a month, sometimes two. We are currently working the school board in an effort to arrange having the kids come here for a field trip and visit the museum.”
There is nearly 250 years of history from the American Revolutionary War to our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The museum hosts between 25-30,000 visitors yearly and Ralph will be the first one to tell you, “all of the items we have were worn by soldiers; it’s not junk.”
One of his favorite things is the Tuesday lunch. It started out with five guys every Tuesday getting together at the museum and having a bite to eat that Ralph’s wife, Alma, would cook. It quickly grew to 65 people, and in season it has gotten to as many as 200 people.
Of the museum, Ralph says “It’s the place I’ve wanted all along. A place where veterans can come in, talk, get advice, and just get out of their house for a while.”
Joining the National Guard
Not many fifteen-year-old boys join the National Guard, but Ralph did with the help of his Uncle Don, a WWII veteran. “My uncle and I were close,” reminisces Ralph. “He would visit all the time and he always shared with me what life was like in the service, but he never shared any World War II stories with me.” Ralph speaks proudly of his Uncle Don who served as a 1st Sergeant with the 50th Armed Division out of Paterson, New Jersey.
His uncle was hoping to set Ralph up with a medical detachment and they went to meet with a recruiter. When the lieutenant behind the desk asked for Ralph’s birth certificate, he replied he did not have it with him but his uncle vouched for him, but the lieutenant did not buy into it but said he would take the chance because of his Uncle. The lieutenant said to make sure “that this kid doesn’t come back to me three months later and say he is underage.”
Needless to say, Ralph did enlist with the National Guard in November 1955 and served until 1961 when he received an honorable discharge.
One incident he recalled of his time in the service was driving “in a convoy up to Camp Drum. I was not yet seventeen and had to drive the jeep with our lieutenant in it. It was a three-day drive and I had no NJ driver’s license. I’m sure the lieutenant knew, but just never said anything. And I certainly wasn’t going to tell him.”
His first assignment was serving as a field medic. “I was in charge of all the inoculations for the entire battalion. It was a huge responsibility for a seventeen-year-old.”
When Ralph’s reenlistment came up five and a half years later, he chose not to rejoin. He was 21, married with one child and another on the way. “I was up for Sergeant,” he remembered, “and I would have had to do six months of active duty, but I just couldn’t leave my wife and family.”
After Leaving the Service
Ralph kept busy after being discharged. “My first business was dry cleaning. I’ve always run small businesses. My wife and I have figured that we owned and operated at least fourteen businesses since I left the military.”
Even though Ralph would run various small businesses, one thing he always kept was his real estate license. In between business adventures, he’d buy and sell property; he said this was his back-up. “One thing I learned,” he says, “is it is a good thing to own a restaurant or a pizza place. Because at the end of the day, you’ll always have food for your table.”
One Sunday morning, Ralph ran out to get some milk and bread and was surprised that he had to travel five miles just to find some. On the way back he saw a strip mall with a vacant store front, and the following day inquired about it. “I met with the owner, and by the following Monday I had the keys,” he says. “In two weeks I had a delicatessen opened. My wife worked there, I had the kids working there after school. It was great. We always had food and the kids got all of their friends to stop in and eat (FREE).
Discovering Cape Coral
It was through a business acquaintance that Ralph discovered Cape Coral. He recalled how he would chat with his friend about once a month who happened to live in Fort Myers. “He would call me and bust my chops about the winter weather. He’d say, ‘How’s the weather up there?’ I’d say, ‘We got two feet of snow. How is it down there?’ He would say, ‘It’s 82 degrees.’ I talked to him maybe twenty times a year and it was always 82 degrees.”
When the construction business slowed in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania) Ralph took his friend up on an invite and decided to go see for himself if it was really 82 degrees every day. “I told my wife and family ‘I’m going to Florida; if it’s nice down there, I’m going to send for ya.’” And that is what happened; as of 1988, Ralph and his family have been residing in Lee County.
He remembers traveling down Cape Coral Parkway in the late 1980’s and not even passing another car. “It was a barren place, but a lot of construction was going on. When my friend brought me over the one lane bridge that was there at the time, I thought he was crazy. It was all just a big field.”
Ralph had his own building company and saw the potential in Cape Coral.
When reflecting on living in Cape Coral so many years later, Ralph says it is like living back home. “Everyone from up there is now here. It’s not like living in an area with a bunch of strangers. All these people lived five or ten miles from me back up north. It’s like my old neighborhood.”
Life Before Military
Ralph was born in Paterson, New Jersey and lived there until he entered the sixth grade. The family then moved to Clifton, one town over from Paterson. It was in Clifton that Ralph finished his schooling and met his future wife.
Ralph was born just before our country entered into WWII, and he recalls as a child hiding during air raid drills. His mother worked a night shift at a factory, and his father would be home in the evenings to watch him. They lived directly across from a fire station. One night an air raid siren went off at the fire station. Ralph remembered sitting in the dark with his Dad and waiting to be told everything was OK. Likely from the air raid, Ralph got an ingenious idea.
“It was autumn and the all leaves were falling, and I guess from that air raid the night before I got the idea to camouflage the house. So, with my friend Pauly, we collected leaves and began to paste them to the side of the house. It doesn’t make sense now, but it did when I was five or six and started to do that.”
Years later in high school Ralph met Alma. He was quick to point how she was a Junior and he was a Sophomore, “that was a big deal,” he says. They went to the prom and were engaged during Ralph’s senior year. He graduated in 1957 and the couple married in 1958.
They also started a family and have two boys and one girl.
Their oldest son, Ralph (not junior) lives in Port Charlotte and is a disabled veteran. In 1978, Ralph joined the Air Borne Infantry. Ralph explains what happened to his son, “three years later, during a low level jump from a plane, his chute did not openly properly and he injured his spine and back. He had a spinal tap that went wrong and that caused more damaged to his back. So, he finished his enlistment three months ahead of schedule with an honorable discharge.”
Richard is the second child, currently living in Pittsburg to be near his daughter and her family. Ralph also has two great-grandchildren from this branch of the family.
Their youngest is their daughter, Alma, named after her mother. She resides out west in Wyoming with her three kids. “She just came off of a 40-acre farm and works rescuing animals. At one time she was caring for up to forty dogs. She is also a veterinarian’s assistant.” Ralph jokes around that she “is one of those western girls and I don’t know where that came from.”
“This is it for me,” says Ralph, looking around the museum. “I don’t think I’ll find anything better to do. I enjoy coming here every day and I leave with a smile because I know we did something for a veteran.”
Thank you, Ralph Santillo, for being such a great asset to the city of Cape Coral and all the residents and veterans who live here!