Bob Shure and Karen Levy of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, present Wayne and Kim Lovelace, of Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry, with a Patriot Award for the company's support of Sgt. Lupe Rios, an employee who serves in the Missouri Army National Guard. (Submitted photo)
By Bill Phelan
ELSBERRY, Mo. - After the untimely death of his father, Guadalupe Rios immigrated to the United States in 1995 hoping to find work so he could send some money to his mother and siblings back in Mexico.
He was 17-years-old, poorly educated and spoke no English, Rios said.
Today, Sgt. "Lupe" Rios is serving with the Missouri Army National Guard in Afghanistan. He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Missouri Baptist College and speaks perfect English. And while his own hard work and determination is largely responsible for his success, Rios also credits the support of his civilian employer, Wayne Lovelace, the owner of Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry.
In recognition of that support, Lovelace was recently presented with a Patriot Award from the Missouri Committee for Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. The award is given to employers who go above and beyond in supporting their workers who serve in the National Guard or military reserves.
"Many people tend to call Soldiers heroes, but I believe the real heroes are those who stay behind and keep things from falling apart while we are gone," Rios wrote in a letter nominating Lovelace for the award. "The real hero for me is Wayne Lovelace. He gave his full support to a perfect stranger. He pushed me to move forward. He taught me the basics of business. He inspired me to a better life and to become a better father, husband, brother, son and Soldier."
After harvesting vegetables in California for three years, Rios moved east and "somehow ended up in Elsberry, Mo." He quickly landed a job at Forrest Keeling picking weeds and tending to the nursery stock. Although he spoke very little English at the time, Rios' coworkers recognized something special in him.
"Lupe was a standout among his peers," Lovelace said. "He exhibited leadership qualities and his supervisor told me that I should take a closer look at him."
Thus began a lasting friendship between Lovelace and Rios.
While Rios planned his wedding in 2001, Lovelace loaned him $3,000 to hire an attorney so that Rios could become a U.S. citizen. The following year Rios began studying for his high school diploma. Appropriately, he wrote an essay entitled "Pursuing the American Dream."
"On his own, Lupe got his high school graduation equivalency diploma and we gave him additional responsibilities at the nursery," Lovelace said. "Then he came to me and said that he would like to enroll in college. He attended classes at night, and to encourage him we bought his books. He proved to be an outstanding student and graduated with honors."
"Those were very hard times," Rios said. "Many times I was forced to stop work during the day to catch up on my homework, but Wayne always made sure I was getting paid."
While doing research for a college assignment, Rios came across an article about the National Guard.
"I discovered that I could keep my civilian job, serve my country, and earn my citizenship all at the same time," Rios explained.
So with the support of his wife, Jessica, and Lovelace, Rios reported for basic Army training in June 2005. By that time he had two small children. After graduating from advanced individual training, Rios was assigned to the 3175th Military Police Company, headquartered in Warrenton, Mo. But there was a problem.
"I was not qualified to become a military policeman because I was not a citizen," Rios explained. "But the company helped me with my paperwork and held a slot open for me. In May of 2007 I graduated from college and in June I was granted my citizenship. Two months later I was on my way to Fort Dix to become a military policeman."
After MP school Rios was deployed to Kosovo. While deployed, Lovelace paid Rios 25-percent of his salary and even sent a landscaping crew to his house to cut the grass and prune the trees.
"Wayne would stop by the house in the winter to make sure my family had enough propane to stay warm," Rios said. "He was always one phone call away to assist my family."
When Rios returned from deployment and wanted to visit his family in Mexico, Lovelace was again supportive, paying Rios his full salary during the visit. When he finally returned to work, Rios was promoted.
"Lupe now runs most of our production program," Lovelace said. "He supervises the production of approximately one million trees."
Rios is now using his horticultural expertise as part of a Missouri National Guard Agriculture Development Team in Afghanistan. He is scheduled to return home in May and when he does, his job at Forrest Keeling will be waiting for him.
"Lupe came here as teenager trying to support his mother and that kind of responsibility builds character," Lovelace said. "But that is the kind of person Lupe is. His journey has made us all very proud of him and he is highly respected here."
Lovelace recognizes the Patriot Award as a "thank you" for his support of Rios and the National Guard, but it is Lovelace who is equally thankful.
"Any favor I've done for Lupe has been returned and then some," he said. "He is a wonderful addition to our business."
For more information about the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, visit esgr.org.
For more information about the Missouri National Guard, please call 1-800-GoGuard or visit www.moguard.com.
Sgt. Lupe Rios in the greenhouse at Forrest Keeling Nursery in Elsberry. Rios is currently serving with a Missouri National Guard Agriculture Development Team in Afghanistan. (Submitted photo)