As a young child, Russell Schillaci Sr. cared for his mother, who was extremely ill. When he was 12, she died of cancer, leaving him with a lost feeling and unsure what to do with his future, said his wife, Lucille.
At 18, even though he did not know how to swim and he often got seasick, he joined the Navy during World War II, spending 1943 through 1946 in the Pacific Theater, earning several honors.
Mr. Schillaci, 91, of Bellmawr, died at his home Friday, May 5, after struggling with the advanced stages of dementia and deteriorating health, his wife said.
His family described Mr. Schillaci as a wonderful husband, caring father, and accomplished veteran, and a hard worker who spent 35 years as a machinist and manager for General Electric Co. He also earned extra money with a variety of side jobs that included carpentry, hanging vinyl siding, building home additions, and installing elevators.
"He was a jack of all trades," his wife said. "There wasn't anything he could not do."
Born in Philadelphia, Mr. Schillaci joined the Navy after high school. After training, he was deployed to a destroyer escort, eventually assigned to the Beale 471.
He took part in the defeat of Japanese craft, including a battleship, a destroyer, and several attack planes.
He left the Navy with a Victory Medal, American Theater Ribbon, Pacific Theater Ribbon (five stars), and the Philippine Liberation Medal (two stars).
After the Navy, Mr. Schillaci enrolled in the Yawn School of Photography. He specialized in weddings. His stepmother made wedding gowns and referred her clients to Mr. Schillaci.
Mr. Schillaci also worked as an apprentice at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Lucille "Lue" Tangi's father was a family friend of Mr. Schillaci's father. One day, she went to a movie with him because his sister was ill. They started dating and fell in love, marrying in 1952. They lived briefly in Camden before relocating to Bellmawr in 1955, where they raised sons James, Michael, Mark, and Russell.
"He was always there for us," said James Schillaci, recalling that his father came to his assistance in Ohio, where his car broke down on his way to St. Louis. "He was a good dad and he loved his grandchildren."
On Veterans Day 2009, Mr. Schillaci was invited to a grandson's class to talk about his experiences in the Navy. He brought pictures and was proud to be part of their day, his wife said.
Mr. Schillaci's hobbies included bowling, chess, pinochle, and trips to the casinos and the racetrack.
His wife recalled that when they married, her husband did not know how to dance. He was jealous when she danced with other men. He took dance lessons, learning to jitterbug, Polish polka, and cha-cha.
"Not that many men would do that," his wife said. "I'm going to be lonely without him. We were attached at the hip. We did everything together."
In addition to his wife and sons, Mr. Schillaci is survived by four grandchildren, two step-brothers, and a half-sister.
A viewing is scheduled for 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, May 12, and 9:45 to 10:45 a.m. Saturday, May 13, at Gardner Funeral Home, 126 S. Black Horse Pike, Runnemede. A Funeral Mass will follow at 11:30 a.m. at St. Joachim Parish, Mary Mother of the Church, 20 Braisington Ave., Bellmawr. Mr. Schillaci will receive military honors. Entombment will be in the New St. Mary's Mausoleum.