At 76 years of age, Ralph Tosti admits he no longer has the youthful bearing he once had.
“Ah, the knees, you know, and the shoulder acts up,” said the retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel who will be stepping down this month after 22 years at the helm of Bellevue West High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC program.
“But whoever said working with young people keeps you young was right. Oh, sometimes I feel 76, but most of the time I’ve got all the energy I need. It’s been a good run and I’ve worked with a great bunch of kids.”
His retirement at Bellevue West means Tosti is coming to the close of his second career. He spent 28 years on active duty in the Air Force, his last posting as public affairs officer at Offutt Air Force Base.
But within four months of his first retirement, Tosti saw an opportunity at Bellevue West he thought too good to pass up.
“So I put the uniform back on and off I went,” he said. “And if I could go back 20 years and do it all over again, I would.”
If you’re doing the math, that’s 50 years Tosti has worn his Air Force blues, just shy of two-thirds of his life.
When the teenagers he’s guided as the senior instructor for the Junior ROTC and aerospace program at Bellevue West meditate on his service, one word comes immediately to the fore.
“Inspirational,” said Joshua Butler, a senior cadet in the program. “I find it very inspirational, looking at the fact he’s been wearing that uniform for 50 years, giving to his students, giving up his weekends for the drill team competitions, getting up at 4 a.m. to get to school and get us ready for practice. And he’s served our country all that time.”
Josh Magee, a junior cadet in his first year at Bellevue West after moving to Nebraska from Texas, said he’s had a desire to be in a ROTC program as long as he can remember.
“And now I’m learning from a man who has had 22 years at the school and a full career in the Air Force,” Magee said. “He’s got alumni in the military, leaders in business. They come back and they tell you what an impact Col. Tosti has had on their lives and we see it too, the way he mentors us. He’s like no other person I’ve ever met.”
Both Butler and Magee were part of the school’s first armed drill team. In March, the team traveled to College Park, Md., to take part in the Air Force Nationals Drill Competition at the University of Maryland.
They came away with a first-place finish in the regulation drill with rifle category.
“We wanted to go and get a first-place trophy for his last year,” Magee said. “And we got him a first-place trophy.”
It was a great way to go out a winner, said Tosti, who, in his tenure at Bellevue West, was also an assistant coach on a number of the school’s state championship volleyball teams.
“I didn’t ever think I’d be coaching a drill team,” he said. “But just like in volleyball, it was such a joy to work with the kids. They were all hard workers — drill team, volleyball — and it all paid off because we had a lot of success in both in my time here.”
Tosti’s career in education started at Central Junior High School in Kansas City, Kan.
He was fresh off a master’s degree at the University of Kansas, married to Charlotte, his wife of 56 years and was already starting a family that eventually ran to three children.
On top of it, he was fulfilling his Air Force obligation after his own stint in ROTC in college.
“But the Air Force said they didn’t need me at the time, so I went off to teach physical education and history — or civics, as they called it at the time,” he said.
It didn’t take long for the Air Force to come calling, however, and not long after taking his position at the school, he was whisked into active duty. His time serving took him hither and yon, including a four-year post teaching at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo.
When his military service came to a close at Offutt, Tosti knew he still wanted to work at something and consulted a fellow colleague in blue who had gone into the Junior ROTC circuit.
“It was a great fit,” he said. “To be in this community, too, where the base is right here and you can take kids for tours, they can eat in a chow hall and talk to the people who have made it their profession. You can’t ask for any better support.”
Quick to deflect praise onto those around him, Tosti also thanked his support staff in the Junior ROTC program at Bellevue West, retired Chief Master Sgts. Bruce Stohlman and Vicki Swingle.
“A great partnership is what it takes to have a great program,” he said. “It’s how you build rapport with the community and with the students.”
Looking back, Tosti stays true to a dutiful creed in considering his accomplishments.
“It’s been a good career,” he said. “It was way more than I thought I’d be doing.
“But in the end, you be humble, you do your job, not be boastful, and good things happen.”