Vickroy: World War II vet crafts world icons, stick by stick
BY DONNA VICKROY email@example.com Twitter: @dvickroy March 27, 2013 10:44PM
Vince Santolin, of Tinley Park, builds matchstick models. Pictured are his models of the Big Ben clock tower, Empire State Building and London Bridge. | Brett Roseman~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 29, 2013 10:00AM
Cricket had its fans. Zippo has its followers.
In a world grown accustomed to lighters, Vince Santolin has found new life for the matchstick.
Hundreds of thousands of matchsticks.
Santolin, a retired pharmacist and World War II veteran, has turned thin, tiny, slivers of wood into elaborate works of art.
To name a few: the Eiffel Tower, the London Bridge, the Tower of London, Notre Dame Cathedral, replete with flying buttresses, and a replica of the paddlewheeler from “Showboat,” now on display in the home of a friend.
“I’ve always liked working with my hands,” said Santolin, who lives in Tinley Park with his wife, Diana. “I also like to give them away.”
He’s given a matchstick classic car to his barber, a fire engine to his firefighter son-in-law and a windmill to a friend who is Dutch.
Diana helps in the giveaway department. If a visitor expresses a particular interest in, say, a Big Ben clock tower or an Empire State Building, she makes it a gift.
“There’s only so much room,” Diana said with a chuckle. And her husband keeps building.
His current project is the Statue of Liberty.
Santolin, who worked for Walgreens for 35 years, had a hard time adjusting to retired life after he hung up his pharmacist jacket 25 years ago. He tried dabbling in ceramics for a while but quickly lost interest.
Then his son, remembering that Santolin liked to build model airplanes from balsa wood as a kid, suggested he give Matchitecture a try.
The kits come with matchsticks, called microbeams, as well as glue and pages and pages of directions — the kind of mind-blowing directions that, well, make most people go bonkers.
When asked if he was blessed in the patience department, considering it took him nearly 10 months to build the 8,000-piece replica of the Taj Mahal, Santolin said, “Nah, you don’t need patience, all you need is a sharp razor.”
Many of the sticks have to be sliced into even smaller pieces before they can be molded into arches or circles. Other times, they have to be fused together to form long beams.
Clearly, matchstick model building is not for people who aren’t big on details.
But, Santolin added, “If you think these buildings are amazing, how about the guy who made the plans? Now there’s a genius.”
Santolin, 86, grew up in Chicago’s Pullman community. Even as a kid, he was always handy. When he was in fifth grade, he built a replica of Fort Sheridan out of matchsticks. It was displayed at the Pullman branch of the Chicago Public Library for years until it fell apart, he said.
After graduating from Fenger High School, Santolin enrolled at Purdue University but was only able to take one class in mechanical drawing, en route to fulfilling his dream to become an engineer, before he was drafted into the Army.
He served two years, in the Philippines and part of the time under Gen. Douglas MacArthur in occupied Tokyo.
“I was a draftsman,” he said. “MacArthur and I worked in the same building. I made drawings of transmitters.”
For years, the former staff sergeant owned a world map of all the radar transmitters, but he donated it recently to the World War II Museum in Pontiac.
When he got back to the States, Santolin worked for a time as a draftsman for an air-cleaning company. Then one day he decided on a lark to accompany a friend to the University of Illinois to take the pharmacy school entrance exam.
“I got in but my friend didn’t,” he said.
He met Diana years later during a fundraising event at a local social club.
“Our kids still joke, ‘Daddy met Mommy at a turkey shoot,’ ” she said.
The couple have one son and one daughter and have been married 43 years, living for a time in Calumet City and Orland Park before moving to Tinley Park in the early 2000s.
Two and a half years ago, Santolin became very ill. Diana said a bad diagnosis almost led to his death. At 128 pounds, he was hospitalized. During his stay, his heart stopped for a time. Staffers were able to revive him, and he later was sent to rehab.
Diana, who works with PLOWS Council on Aging, specializes in assessing clients’ problems and connecting them with the services they need. She also tries to keep the elderly out of nursing homes and in the community as long as possible.
“I could tell he was going downhill in rehab,” she said. “So I brought him home to die.”
She left her job to stay home and take care of him.
“Now here he is. Look at him. It’s wonderful to see he’s here enjoying life,” she said.
Today, with her husband back on his feet, Diana is able to work part time again. She heads into the PLOWS office a couple of times a week.
And she’s still amazed at her husband’s recovery, she said.
“He stopped driving many years ago because of poor vision and poor depth perception,” she said. “And yet he does all this.”
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