By: Jen Russon
When the time came for Vincenzo Ruffino, a boy scout, to start thinking about his eagle project, the idea it would result in dedicating a statue in memory of his grandfather’s dog was far from the teenager’s mind.
Vincenzo said war dog ‘Rex 9A34’ is more than just a bronze sentry standing guard at the new dog park located in Firefighters Park. The German Shepard was sculpted in tribute to the real Rex — his grandfather’s beloved pet over 70 years ago.
“I grew up hearing the story of Rex throughout my childhood. I had a feeling of doubt because my grandfather wasn’t here to help me, but my parents encouraged me to try my best,” he said in front of a large crowd on Saturday.
The group included U.S. service members in full uniform, Vincenzo’s Boy Scout Troop 497 of Coral Springs, and its leaders, as well as Margate emergency responders.
Vincenzo said while a Margate city commission plan to build a new dog park was delayed, his grandfather had faith, it would be completed before he passed away in March 2018.
Vito Speziale, age 90, also a boy scout, lived near Vincenzo’s family. The family traveled from their home in Margate to help Vincenzo’s grandmother care for her husband after he was diagnosed with cancer.
Vincenzo said his grandfather was a father figure to him, accompanying him to scout meetings held at J.P. Taravella High School. Vincenzo is a junior at Calvary Christian Academy.
For Vincenzo, an only child, and his parents, Rosalie and Vinnie, WWII history came alive when Speziale spoke of Rex and the pride his family felt taking part in a unique military training program for dogs at the time.
In 1943, Speziale was desperate to enlist but too young to answer his country’s call, so he penned a letter to the United States Army, offering Rex as a service dog.
These and other correspondence detailing Rex’s two tours and honorable discharge are on display at the Margate dog park; as are old, black and white pictures of the real Rex and his master Speziale.
Vincenzo’s grandmother, Maria Speziale, was also there to recall the real-life events ‘Rex 9A34’ represents. The dog, with its piercing and alert eyes, wears his service number on a bronze jacket.
Rex reportedly returned home with shell shock in the spring of 1945, underscoring the sacrifice man’s best friend made during the war.
Seventy-seven years later, his grandson’s eagle project tells Rex’s wartime story to visitors, who gathered in the rain for an unveiling of the statue, just a few days after Veterans Day.
Made of 250 pounds of bronze, the war dog statue was lovingly created by the Utah sculptor Lena Toritch.
Toritch said Vincenzo found her in a Google search, telling her he would be deeply honored to have her help in immortalizing Rex.
“I was so impressed by Vincenzo and his family. The Ruffinos are very special people. I know that scouting is about leadership, and Vincenzo’s leadership during the Rex project is a great testimony to the scouting program,” said Toritch.
The sculptress, whose foundry is in Lehi, Utah, gave Vincenzo a sizable discount on the statue, leaving the eagle scout with the budget to landscape around his grandfather’s beloved Rex.
Vincenzo said his boy scout troop helped with fundraising, eventually raising more than $14,000 for his eagle project.
The Rex statue was brought up before the Margate city commission in January, approved, and set in motion by the summer.
In the blistering heat of July, over 30 volunteers — most of them fellow 497 troop members — spent hours in Margate’s Firefighters Park, completing the landscaping around the area where they knew Rex would be installed.
The unveiling day finally arrived on Saturday, November 14, and was attended by Mayor Tommy Ruzzano, Vice Mayor Arlene Schwartz, city commissioners, and Margate’s fire and police chiefs.
The fire department presented Vincenzo with an honorary medallion, thanking him for raising awareness about the important work of service dogs.
Vincezo also received a plaque from the city of Margate congratulating him on his Eagle rank, as well as a thank you for dedicating the Rex statue.
As it started to rain again, Vincenzo gathered with parents, grandmother, and Coral Springs scout leaders Jeff Skinner and Troop leader and his mentor, Mr. Norusis.
“It was not an easy task, and at times people thought it was crazy, but I learned a tremendous life lesson because of this project, and I thank Troop 497 for helping to make it possible,” he said.
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