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Meet the mess hall crew at the SWFL Military Museum

By Irene “Susie” Smith - Guardians of the SWFL Military Museum | Sep 10, 2020

PHOTO PROVIDED The mess hall crew at the SWFL Military Museum features “Buffalo” Bob Smith, Georgia “Kitty” Pettis and Michael Ambazis.

Bob Smith didn’t choose the nickname “Buffalo” Bob after the Howdy Doody character.

“I was a school bus driver in Buffalo, New York, for 12 years. There were five of us named Bob Smith. I took the name of the city.”

A high energy person, Bob served as a cook on a U.S. Navy ammunition ship from 1965-68.

“We passed ammo to the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk and the Enterprise.”

After being discharged, Smith operated a rubbish collection business for 25 years. Then he owned a Mobil gas station for eight years. He retired to Florida in 1992, again diving a school bus for several years.

By the year 2000, Buffalo Bob needed something to do. He volunteered at SWFL Military Museum because they needed help.

“I started as a greeter, then a cook, assisting Michael Ambazis, the chef,” he said.

“The virus has crippled us in attendance and volunteers. We are struggling to keep the building operating. Ninety percent of our funds came from donations.”

What they serve depends upon what they have in stock.

“We make do with what we have: fried chicken or pasta, ground beef, etc. We get creative,” he said.

Previously the kitchen offered eight or nine menu choices. Today they have less items, for lack of stock and people. Several restaurants like Anthony’s Restaurant provides meals, but not as often as before. Publix donates its baked goods, anything from the day before. They are most generous.

Local farmers donate surplus fruits and vegetables, allowing the staff to help feed the community.

Meals are served to the veterans and family on Tuesdays and Wednesday. The staff is served on Thursday.

On a recent Tuesday there were 67 people in attendance, the highest number in a long while. The group is optimistic that attendance (and donations) will continue to increase.

“Our main goal,” said Buffalo Bob, “is to take care of our vets, feeding them a good meal and making people aware of the incredible history in this museum. There is no charge for visiting, but we desperately need donations. What we do is for the country. Lest we forget. “

Michael Ambazis

Michael Ambazis was a Greek citizen who served in the U.S. Army NATO Forces in Greece as a radio engineer from 1969-72. He immigrated to America, settling in New Jersey. In college, Michael studied civil engineering but never pursued it.

After moving to Cape Coral in 2012 Michael volunteered at the SWFL Military Museum because he knew how to cook. According to his fellow workers, he is a role model who takes his job seriously. A quiet, humble man, Mike dedicates five days a week to the museum.

Before the virus hit, the Mess Hall crew served up to 200 people on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and they had about 40 volunteers.

“Without the funding and the food supplies we received prior to the virus, it is more challenging.” Mike nodded.

Why does he stay on?

“I have to do something worthwhile. I receive a lot of satisfaction just helping our vets.”

Georgia “Kitty” Pettis

Georgia “Kitty” Pettis, a jovial, bouncy lady, was raised in Naperville, Illinois. In high school she was tagged “Kitty” because she loves cats and owned three of them.

Kitty, as she prefers to be called, was an administrative assistant for Allied Van Lines Special Projects for 10 years.

“I loved the job,” she said. “We didn’t move household goods, only equipment for exhibits, like Ramses II, which took place in Jacksonville, in 1986-87. Airplanes, items for trade shows, anything sensitive or delicate. It was always exciting.”

When the Pettises moved to Cape Coral in 2000, Kitty became active with various church groups. At Cape Assembly she established a counseling group.

Her husband, Robert Pettis, died on July 29, 2015–10 days before their 59th wedding anniversary. Kitty decided she needed to do something else. A pastor friend mentioned he was going to visit the Military Museum; would she like to come along?

“I was very impressed. I just wanted to give of myself,” Kitty said. “Judy Petrulavage asked if I would be willing to work in the kitchen. That was four years ago. I said, yes, and love every aspect of it. I like serving food, washing dishes, clearing up before and after meals, preparing food, whatever. And I have nothing but praise for Mike, our chef; and together with Buffalo Bob Smith, we are like the Three Musketeers, fighting for what we believe needs to be done.”

Kitty works three days a week. In her spare time she grows orchids.

“When the girls from up north come to volunteer it is like a family reunion,” she said.

Did she think they would be coming this year? Kitty hesitated.

“I don’t know. I pray they will. As a Christian I pray a lot.”

A three-strand rope is not easily broken.

The Southwest Florida Military Museum & Library, which features an expansive display of military artifacts from all major American wars, is at 4820 Leonard St., Cape Coral, FL 33904. For more information, call 239-541-8704 or visit www.swflmm.org.