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Air Force veteran, wife now captain St. Stephen Spring Jubilee

Riverview retirees Arlene and Sam Ross share a laugh recently as they spend another day helping to organize the four-day St. Stephen Catholic Church Spring Jubilee, which begins Thursday.

Monica Bennett | Special to the Times

Riverview retirees Arlene and Sam Ross share a laugh recently as they spend another day helping to organize the four-day St. Stephen Catholic Church Spring Jubilee, which begins Thursday.

RIVERVIEW — The yellow folders and thick black binders cover the dining room table. The to-do list is never ending. Yet the couple in the middle of organizing the St. Stephen Catholic Church festival isn't overwhelmed.

They're happy to help.

"You've got to stay active," explained Sam Ross, chairman of this year's St. Stephen Spring Jubilee. "I see so many older people who just quit. We don't want to do that."

So, Sam Ross, 77, wakes up early every morning to pore over his hand-written checklist, make phone calls and keep everything up to date on an iPad. At Ross' side is his wife, Arlene, 76. They've been a team for 55 years.

"I couldn't do this at all without her," he said.

•••

Festival planning is no easy feat. You have got to stay on top of everything — food, lights and security to name a few. Sam and Arlene say the nonstop pace does not faze them. They've got lots of history juggling this and that.

In high school in Vandergrift, Pa., he handled schoolwork and the demands of football, basketball and baseball. At Philadelphia's University of Pennsylvania, Ross managed his studies and college baseball and football.

Then, he became a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, retiring in 1979 while stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. After that, he moved into banking, retiring a second time in 1998.

Arlene stayed active too. She raised three boys in their Brandon and Odessa homes, and then went to work as a teller and loan secretary at a bank when her youngest child was in middle school. She retired from the mortgage insurance business in 1998.

In retirement, they stayed on the go. First, they moved to the mountains in Georgia. Then, they moved back to their hometown of Vandergrift, just outside Pittsburgh. They reconnected with family and friends. They cheered for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They continued to travel.

In 2009, they returned to Florida to visit. Their youngest son, Chris, his wife, Susan, and grandson Matthew, live in Riverview. Son David and his family live in Odessa.

Oldest son Patrick and his family live in Tennessee.

Arlene Ross enjoyed her time with Matthew, her youngest grandchild, who was then a toddler. A one-month visit turned into three months. Then, she told her husband she did not want to go back to Pennsylvania.

"I just couldn't give him (Matthew) up," she said. "He's my boy."

Echoed Sam Ross: "He is the light of our life."

So, they sold their house in Pennsylvania and settled in a retirement community in Riverview.

• • •

Arlene Ross stayed busy with reading, water aerobics and acting. Sam Ross tried to stay busy, too. He golfed and tidied the landscaping in Chris' yard. They were active parishioners at St. Stephen. The couple looked forward to Wednesday, the day they got to pick up Matthew, 6, from St. Stephen Catholic School.

But, Arlene Ross could sense that her husband needed to do more with his free time. So, she suggested the Spring Jubilee.

"I kind of pushed him," she said, laughing. "I knew he was bored."

Sam Ross started out assisting longtime festival chairman Gene Batronie. Within weeks, he assumed the lead role.

"Gene has a young family," Sam Ross said. "I said, "I'll take over.' "

The couple has had to learn it all. The St. Stephen carnival is a big-time operation that involves signs, T-shirts, raffles, food, rides, entertainment, even ordering the right number of portable toilets.

"It's a long list," Sam Ross said.

Ross said he has a hard-working team of volunteers helping out, including Batronie. Planning the four-day festival is a big job and Ross is treating his role as though it's the closing minutes of an important ball game.

Nothing will stop him from seeing it to the end.

So, the couple's traveling is on hold. Movie nights are suspended. Their days are filled with what needs to be done for the Spring Jubilee.

"This has been our life right now," he said, pointing to his notes, folders and binders. "It's a lot of work."

He is quick to add the couple is thrilled to be part of the Spring Jubilee team. Their days are full and they've made many new friends.

"It's been a labor of love," he said.

• • •

Sam Ross said the festival is an important community event because it connects St. Stephen to the greater-Riverview area. It also provides money for the St. Stephen Catholic School and the children who attend its once-a-week religious education classes.

"You really don't want to fail because they set the precedent," he said.

St. Stephen pastor Bill Swengros is touched at the way the parishioners unite to support the festival and other church events. Volunteers are never lacking at St. Stephen, he said.

"They're saints," Swengros said. "The Catholic Church isn't run by the pope, bishop or priest. It's all the lay faithful."

Swengros said the Spring Jubilee is designed as a community event. The fundraising component is always secondary.

Ross is having such a fun ride that he's thinking about running the festival next year — with Arlene at his side.

"We may as well do it while we can," he said. "We're retired. We have all day."

Swengros to leave St. Stephen

The 2013 St. Stephen Catholic Church Spring Jubilee will be the last for Father Bill Swengros, who has served as the church's pastor since 2005. Swengros will soon take a sabbatical and after that lead another church in the St. Petersburg diocese.

Swengros said he won't forget his time at the St. Stephen parish.

"It's been a tremendous blessing," he said.

Spring Jubilee chairman Sam Ross said volunteers are working extra hard to make sure the festival is a success. They see it as a way to honor Swengros' service to the parish.

"We'd at least like to let him go out in style," Ross said.

Pastor Robert J. Schneider will assume the top spot at St. Stephen Catholic Church on July 1. He most recently served at Espiritu Santo Catholic Church in Safety Harbor. And, as Swengros preferred "Father Bill," Schneider also will go by "Father Bob."

Monica Bennett, Times correspondent

. If You Go

The St. Stephen Catholic Jubilee runs Thursday through April 14 at 10428 St. Stephen Circle, 1/4 mile west of the Bell Shoals Road-Boyette Road intersection in Riverview. Highlights include:

• Free admission, parking

• More than 30 midway rides

• Food

• Live entertainment

• A raffle prize every hour.

For information, go to springjubilee.com.

Air Force veteran, wife now captain St. Stephen Spring Jubilee 04/06/13 [Last modified: Friday, April 5, 2013 5:48pm]

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