The headline in the Daily Signal from May 14, 1960, speaks volumes. “M’Wood Vet Walks Away with Honors.”
“M’Wood” – that would be the Southeast L.A. County community of Maywood, jutting up against South Gate, Downey, Huntington Park and Lynwood – then home to 25-year-old Korean War veteran Gerald P. Rettela. Jerry was attending Woodbury on the G.I. Bill and having a banner year, winning the “Veteran of the Year” award and the “Pop” Whitten Memorial Trophy, named after former Woodbury president, R.H. “Pop” Whitten.
Jerry, a foreign trade major, attended classes in the morning, worked in the mailroom at Bank of America’s L.A. headquarters in the afternoon – Woodbury’s campus was downtown in those days — and studied in the evening. Even with that schedule, he found time to serve as president of Woodbury’s Independent Organizations Council and the sophomore class, secretary of the L.A. Junior Chamber of Commerce, member of the Society for Advancement of Management and founder of Woodbury’s Religious Organizations Council.
Fast forward nearly six decades and the energy’s still there. As he nears his 84th birthday, Jerry just took first place in his age bracket in the Washington State Senior Games, a regional racquetball competition. He won gold two years ago and took last year off due to a hip replacement. He’s got his sights set on the National Senior Olympics in New Mexico next year. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been physically active in sports throughout my life, and I plan to continue,” he says.
A graduate of Venice High, Jerry did two tours during the Korean War as a staff sergeant in the Army infantry, serving in Musun-ni, Chorwan Valley and Jane Russell Hill. On his second tour, he assisted the Fifth Marines on their return from Korea, during which he observed a serious fire in a squad tent. Years later, he learned that one of the soldiers involved in the incident was a Woodbury classmate.
“After the war, I was enthralled with Woodbury, and I immersed myself in college life,” he recalls. “They made me the greeter for incoming new students, I suppose because of my outgoing personality. I made new students feel comfortable, escorting them to their particular stations.” The university was just as accommodating to returning vets. For Jerry and his cohort, the vehicle for reintegration was the Griffin Association of combat veterans.
“Woodbury was instrumental in preparing Korean War veterans for their future in the business world,” Jerry says. “When I graduated, the placement officer couldn’t find any positions for me in foreign trade, so they asked if I’d mind going on interviews in marketing and sales management.” Even without an accounting background, he aced various entrance exams and the transition stuck. Jerry served as a legislative advocate for the Associated Produce Dealers and Brokers of Los Angeles and served on the California Agriculture Council in Sacramento.
After graduating from law school at Pacific Coast University in Long Beach in 1976, he was named legislative advocate for California Code Enforcement. Ever the multi-tasker, Jerry also served as Senior Special Investigator in the office of the state Attorney General.
Jerry’s involvement in Korean War veterans’ groups has sustained him over the years. He joined while living in Southern California and, upon moving to Washington State, served as president of the Olympic Peninsula’s Korean War Veterans Association, the first and only organization of its kind in the state. “Our Korean War veterans’ entourage was recently honored before our county commissioners, in recognition of the signing of the truce in 1953, 65 years ago,” he says. He remains the keeper of records of Korean War casualties among Venice High School students.
On his relocation to Clallam County in Washington State, Jerry took that reverence for veterans up a notch, introducing legislation in the state capital creating memorial highways for veterans of conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and those who were POW/MIA, and/or Medal of Honor recipients. That’s why Clallam is home to more memorial highways than any other county in the country.
Racquet sports, of course, are the other thing that has sustained Jerry – literally – since his youth. He played tennis at Venice High and hung out at the Westport Beach Club in Playa del Rey. His paddle tennis skills earned him a berth at tennis legend Jack Kramer’s tournament, and he once faced off on the tennis court against famed instructor Vic Braden. After handball had taken “a heavy toll” on his fingers, he switched to racquetball, competing nationally and internationally in tournaments since 1974.