Something to prove
John Scalzo is stubborn. The longtime Rifle resident will tell you himself, as will his friends and those who have worked with him on one of his numerous community projects. If he sets his mind to something that he believes in, chances are he is going to see it through to the end.
The end for his most recent project, a memorial listing the names and hometowns of Garfield County veterans killed in action, comes to an end Sunday, when he and other community members will gather to dedicate the newest addition to the West Garfield County Veterans Memorial in north Rifle.
Scalzo, who celebrated his 91st birthday Wednesday, sees the ceremony as an exclamation point capping more than two years of research — with assistance from a small team of fiends and family — and fundraising to pay tribute to those “who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
Neither his persistence nor the fact that he prevailed surprises those who know him.
“John is like that,” said Maryhannah Throm, a friend of Scalzo’s and a lifelong Rifle resident. “When he makes up his mind to do something he does it to the best of his ability. He’s like a bulldog.”
This is not Scalzo’s first project dedicated to veterans. He essentially raised all of the funds for the existing memorial, which was dedicated in 2009.
“He had an idea of what he wanted, and he actually did all the work with regard to financing,” recalled Jay Miller, Rifle mayor pro-tem who served as commander of American Legion Kelly-Hansen Post 78 at the time the memorial was constructed. “He’s the one who went out and got all the money.”
However, his motivation this time was slightly different. Above all else, he wanted to prove that he could do it.
“Everyday I did something with it,” Scalzo said recently. “You could call it an obsession, sure.”
His obsession started with a letter from Chuck Jones, a veteran and resident of Beaver Creek, Ohio, dated April 29, 2013. Jones, whose father was Scalzo’s barber when he was growing up in Rifle, donated to the memorial erected in 2009, and he wanted to know if Scalzo could add three more names to the memorial, along with a cross next to the names denoting that they were killed in action.
Scalzo liked the suggestion and contacted Carlson Memorials Inc., a Grand Junction-based company that engraved the existing stones, to inquire about Jones’ request. To his dismay, there simply was not enough room on the existing memorial to put a cross next to the name of each veteran killed in action. The company suggested erecting a new stone with the names of veterans killed in combat.
Scalzo knew there were more Garfield County veterans killed while serving in the military — specifically a young man he grew up with named Faustino Castillo, who was killed in France in World War II. With the idea in mind, Scalzo approached American Legion Kelly-Hansen Post 78 to ask for help with the project. While the post leadership supported the idea, they were unable to lend assistance.
“It wasn’t that we didn’t want to help,” Dean Wells, current post commander, said. “We didn’t have the opportunity or availability to help, but we supported John.”
The post’s inability to help, Scalzo said, was the single greatest motivating factor throughout the two-year journey.
“I’m stubborn,” he said. “I was going to prove to them that I could do it. It was a matter of proving to them that it could be done. It could be done if you set your mind to it.”
Scalzo new there were more out there, but he had no idea how many more. A total of 91 names run down the back of the memorial that will be unveiled Sunday.
“When he said he wanted to do all of Garfield County I thought it couldn’t be that tremendous,” said Cathie Zarlingo, Scalzo’s niece who lives in Grand Junction. “It really did hit home that Garfield County for its smallness contributed a lot in casualties and blood, sweat and tears to the war effort.”
Zarlingo was one the people Scalzo inadvertently recruited to assist in the effort. As he continued to collect names, Throm, Scalzo’s longtime friend, got word of his project and called him.
The Hansen in American Legion Kelly-Hansen Post 78 is from Throm’s uncle Joseph M. Hansen, who died while serving in World War I. For decades, Hansen had been misspelled as Hanson, including in government documents and the original Garfield County memorial.
Throm was not about to let the error be repeated in Scalzo’s newest effort. “And I told John Scalzo that if you put American Legion Kelly-Hansen on this, you put a hyphen between Kelly-Hansen and you spell Hansen with an e not an o.”
Soon Throm was onboard with the project, but she was hindered by her inexperience with computers. She turned to Dick Rhoades, a Rifle resident who she knew through the Rifle Creek Center for Historical Preservation. Rhoades, who like Zarlingo had researched his family’s genealogy, liked the challenge and started researching names.
After a year of work, Scalzo and his team turned up more than 80 names, but there was one problem: Many of the records, especially from the earlier wars, were incomplete. Garfield County records included names such as A.O. Smith and D. Raymond. It was not good enough for Scalzo.
“Who are these guys? Why would you put Scalzo, JD? Who in the hell is Scalzo, JD? Who is he, nobody,” an animated Scalzo said. “Call it a labor of love or whatever you want to call it.”
With a list of names already compiled, Scalzo could have quit there and ordered the new stone, but he didn’t. Every name had to be verified and categorized by hometown and the war they died in.
“It’s been labor of love for him … his wanting to get it as perfect as he could,” Zarlingo said.
It became detective work, sometimes spending hours on a single name, Rhoades said.
Scalzo started spending his Thursday mornings at the Rifle Branch Library, where librarian Laura West would help him research names online.
“We would do the research, and then he would double check the research,” she said. “I’d have to say that in his heart he wanted these soldiers to be known for what they’d done.”
None of the people who helped Scalzo could remember how much time they spent helping with the research, and neither could Scalzo. It had its challenges, and Scalzo concedes that there were many times that he thought about abandoning the project, but, as he said, he “didn’t have enough guts to quit.”
Over those two years, Scalzo raised more than three times the amount of money needed to pay for the new stone. The remaining money will go toward maintenance of the memorial and adding new names to the more than 2,000 names on the existing stones. At 91 Scalzo said he does not plan to take on another project of this magnitude. His friends have differing opinions.
“I can hear in his voice that when he’s done with this one he’s going to do another one,” Miller said.
Rhoades said Scalzo told him this was his last big project, but he’s not entirely convinced.
The one thing everyone seems to agree on is he certainly is stubborn.
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