From Behind the Lens
Memories and Advice of a Life Well Lived
A brightly decorated pavilion at Admiral Baker Park in San Diego, California, bustles with activity. A party is well underway. Just about 100 people have gathered to celebrate a father, grandfather, great grandfather and friend. His name is Joe Renteria. Wearing a vibrantly colored Hawaiian shirt and a long silver braid down his back, he walks confidently around the tables, shaking hands and embracing some in hugs of love.
Renteria is a veteran of World War II and Korea. A retired chief photographer's mate, he trudged through muddy, humid jungles during the battle of Guadalcanal and flew reconnaissance missions over enemy ships.
Born in Emporia, Kansas, July 17, 1917, Renteria had a relatively normal childhood. But when he was just 8 years old, his family could no longer care for him and he was sent to a Catholic orphanage.
Renteria was athletic, even as a young boy, but he was also Cherokee and proud, and he was bullied by other boys. Expelled after a fight, Renteria wandered the streets of the Midwest, homeless and alone.
But he had a new sense of freedom, no one to tell him no and no plans. He hopped aboard a freight train and travelled across the United States, bound for many destinations: California, Wisconsin and New Mexico. He picked up work where he could.
In New Mexico, he found adventure with the renowned Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey circus, travelling with clowns, acrobats and a menagerie of animals. Renteria's job was to take care of the animals. He would feed them and set up their pens.
There was this big fella and he would walk on these tall stilts," Renteria remembered with a smile and wide grin, followed by a deep, joy-filled laugh. "He made a pair to fit me and taught [me] to walk on them. When we would pull into a town, we would walk into the tent on them. I remember the children laughing and smiling."
The Caring Father
When he was 16, Renteria found a place to call home in another orphanage, Father Flanagan's Boys Home. Father Edward Flanagan, a Roman Catholic priest, founded the home, now called Boys Town, in 1917 in the outskirts of Omaha, Nebraska, and dedicated his life to the care, treatment and education of at-risk youth. According to Sue Colverd in "Developing Emotional Intelligence in the Primary School," the orphanage's methods not only revolutionized juvenile care in 20th-century America, but influenced public boys' homes worldwide.
Renteria wasn't Catholic and as such didn't attend church with the other children, but he found his niche and began to make friends. Flanagan must have seen something in Renteria and encouraged him to be the best version of himself.
"I could order you attend church," Flanagan said in 1933, during a chat that began to change everything for Renteria. "But I would appreciate it if you would come."
Appreciate - a simple word that has followed Renteria throughout his life, a simple word that carries so much meaning and so many memories.
I have used the word much in my life, and some would even call it my life's motto," said Renteria. "Remember that word: Appreciate."
Still, life could be hard. Boys Town placed orphans in the homes of surrounding families so they could learn trades and attend school. Renteria's first home was awful. He worked non-stop on a farm all day and wasn't allowed to attend school. The farmer even cut his portions of meals.
Upon hearing this, Flanagan immediately moved Renteria to a different home, one full of welcoming love. However, he was not to stay long.
Into the Service
When he turned 18 in 1935, during the Depression, there were not many options for a poor boy. Renteria enlisted in the Army soon after graduation, serving a three-year stint.
"I was a machine gunner, and we know they don't live long," Renteria said with a slight smile and laugh. He "got out when my time was finished," and enlisted in the Navy in 1938, heading to Great Lakes, Illinois, for boot camp.
The Navy trained Renteria as an aviation mechanic, sending him to North Island in San Diego. There was only one problem: While he was in the Army, he had fallen deeply in love with a young woman named Jill Roath.