When United States Army veteran Bob Portante planned on returning to his hometown of Windber, he knew he wanted to be involved in the community that meant so much to him growing up.
With the help of his former Cub Scout leader and a little luck, his plan was fulfilled.
That leader was Tom Geiger, who in 2009 was working on establishing a veterans memorial in the borough.
“He was looking for help,” Portante said. “I couldn’t say no.”
His reconnection with Geiger started a 10-year journey in which Portante, 70, got involved with the local Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion and served as the principal coordinator for the Windber Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day celebrations.
After their work on the memorial wall, Geiger, who was coordinating Windber’s community celebrations, suggested Portante take over.
“I can’t say it strongly enough – everyone wants a man of Bob Portante’s caliber in their group or on their team,” Windber Borough Manager Jim Furmanchik said.
Furmanchik has worked with Portante a number of times during the past five years. Furmanchik commended Portante on his straightforward attitude, honesty and organizational skills.
The borough manager said Windber is a community that has “always held veterans in high esteem” – so he’s gratified to see a man who wanted to return to his roots and help the region move forward.
“He’s an individual whose heart is in the right place – and that’s in Windber Borough,” Furmanchik said.
Football, West Point
Growing up, Portante played basketball and football. He said it was those activities that provided him a foundational belief in teamwork.
Sports are what led him to a successful military career as well.
Approaching the end of high school, Portante said he wasn’t sure what he was going to do.
All he did know was that his parents wouldn’t be able to help if he wanted to continue his education because a number of younger siblings were still at home.
In November 1967, as he wrapped up his final year of high school football, Portante received a letter from the United States Military Academy at West Point, offering him the chance to play football there.
Portante believes a former Windber teammate, Billy Hunter, who was playing for the academy at that time, gave them his name.
Seeing the offer as a good opportunity, he went through the application process, but his endorsement from Rep. J. Irving Whalley was denied because he was too late and the primary candidate and list of alternates had already been chosen.
Portante said he doesn’t know how – although he knows his father had something to do with it – but shortly thereafter, he was notified by Whalley’s office that he was the primary candidate.
After graduation in 1968, he was on his way to West Point.
‘Have to work hard’
Following about a year in preparatory school to boost his academics, Portante arrived at the academy in July 1969 with one of the largest and most diverse classes, he said.
He got his chance to try out for the football team and with some encouraging words from his uncle, Portante started his freshman year as a running back.
An injury before sophomore year took him off the starting roster, and during his junior year he rotated in and out with a few other teammates.
But by his senior year, with determination, Portante started again.
“It was a great lesson in ‘nothing is going to be handed to you and you’re going to have to work hard,’ ” he said.
In June 1973, he graduated from West Point and joined the U.S. Army Infantry.
He graduated from Army Ranger school and spent his career in various divisions and regiments, including the 82nd Airborne.
Portante has held numerous leadership positions, including the ground planner for the Joint Special Operations Command from 1988-91 and the chief for the C5 Plans Division in the Republic of Korea from 1994-96.
He also served in the Gulf War and retired as a colonel following time at the U.S. War College in Carlisle, where he was the director for academic operations and the associate dean.
Those 35 years of education, leadership and management of organizations are what Portante credits with his dedication to community service.
“I often say it’s not about me, it’s about the teams I’ve been on,” he said.
Portante also credits words of encouragement from his company commander during his first trip to the Republic of Korea: “Leave it better than you found it.”
He’s carried those words through every position he’s had since the mid-1970s.
That’s what he brought back with him to Windber, Councilman Jim Spinos said.
“Bob – he’s an outstanding guy,” Spinos said, adding that Windber is lucky to have Portante because of his dedication to veterans and described him as a “first class” person.
Inspired to act
Along with the Memorial and Veterans Day events, Portante has served as the finance officer for the Legion, junior vice commander and service officer for the VFW, led the soldier care packages program and coordinated the elementary school program.
Portante said his desire to be involved in the community is connected to relationships with Geiger, his parents and others from the World War II generation.
When he was growing up, nearly all of the men in the community were veterans of the second World War, Portante said.
That left a lasting impression, because these men were so giving of themselves to the place in which they lived.
“For all I’ve done in my life, I can’t hold a candle to these guys in that generation,” Portante said.
He added that the people in areas such as Windber are what built the foundation for his generation’s successes.
Portante has taken those life lessons and celebrates them in the basement of his home, where the walls are adorned with memories from every part of his life – beginning in grade school and including every military assignment up until he retired.
He said every time he enters the room he’s reminded of the community and people that helped him along the way.