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Looking for rehab property, investor finds WWII links.

During the 2004 Veterans Day parade in Media, William Guarnere salutes. Guarnere, who owned a rowhouse on Winton Street in South Philadelphia, died this year at 90. Now the home will be going to another disabled veteran.
During the 2004 Veterans Day parade in Media, William Guarnere salutes. Guarnere, who owned a rowhouse on Winton Street in South Philadelphia, died this year at 90. Now the home will be going to another disabled veteran.Read moreFile Photograph

In a bedroom lay a white silk pillow - yellowed with age and emblazoned with the screaming eagle emblem of the Army's 101st Airborne Division.

On the walls were pictures and plaques telling the story of a World War II veteran; in another room was an adjustable hospital bed and, on a windowsill, a worn Bible.

That October day, Jim Bennett was looking for an investment, a house to buy, rehab, then rent or resell, as he has done with about 500 others over more than 20 years.

But Bennett found much more at the two-story rowhouse on Winton Street in South Philadelphia.

A framed collage of photos revealed the name of the house's late owner: William "Wild Bill" Guarnere, a hero made famous by the best-selling book Band of Brothers and the HBO miniseries of the same name.

Tears welled in his eyes and he called downstairs to Realtor Linda Tosto: "Hey, Lin . . . this is Wild Bill's house!"

Tosto came upstairs.

"I could tell by the tone of his voice that it was something urgent," she said. "We were in awe."

The collage showed a photo of a solemn, elderly Guarnere holding a display of his medals. It was sandwiched between a picture of him as a helmeted young soldier holding a machine gun, and another of him in recent years, sitting on his couch as he often did, smoking.

Guarnere, who fought on D-Day during Operation Market-Garden in the Netherlands and during the Battle of the Bulge, died this year at age 90, and his family had placed the house on the market.

"I was so shaken," said Bennett, whose late father, Edward, landed in France shortly after the D-Day invasion. "You could see who it was.

"I don't tear up easily," he said. "But on this. . . ."

In a downstairs closet, Bennett also found a pair of crutches used by Guarnere, who lost a leg in 1944 trying to save a wounded comrade.

Tosto called the listing agent to ask whether the rowhouse actually belonged to Wild Bill. When that was confirmed, she said, she also "broke down in tears."

"We knew we had to do something different," said Bennett, 50, of Glenmoore, Chester County.

He parted from his usual pattern of renovating, then reselling or renting. He decided he would honor Guarnere's memory by preserving and updating the house for another disabled veteran.

Bennett, who owns Stonehedge Funding, which provides financing for small investment property deals, plans to find the new tenant through the Department of Veterans Affairs and offer an affordable rent.

He told Tosto he'd pay the full $62,500 asking price with no contingencies, instead of the $40,000 he was initially contemplating.

At the same time, Tosto, who had seen the Band of Brothers series, decided she would give up her $2,000 commission to help pay for a planned 1,300-pound bronze statue of Guarnere.

The statue is being created by sculptor Chad Fisher at a reduced fee at his studio and foundry in Dillsburg, near Harrisburg. The Guarnere family wants to place it near the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Philadelphia Korean War Memorial at Penn's Landing.

"We didn't give any of this a second thought," said Tosto, 46, of Honey Brook, Chester County. "There was no hesitation. We weren't doing this for recognition."

Tosto and Bennett hope to place a plaque inside the house to honor Guarnere.

"We consider this to be Wild Bill's home," she said. "We have the privilege of being the caretaker."

Tosto and Bennett were not the only ones overwhelmed by the history that Guarnere's house contained. Tosto's daughter, Tina, a social studies teacher in Gulfport, Miss., had been given the HBO series by her mother and insisted on seeing the veteran's home during a Thanksgiving visit.

"She said, 'I need to be inside before I get on the plane,' " Tosto said. "You could see she was in awe.

"It was an empty house but she knew whose it was and it meant so much to her," she said. "She was like a little kid at Christmas."

The reaction of others to Guarnere's service has been touching, said Debi Rafferty, a granddaughter of the veteran.

"I started crying when I heard," said Rafferty, a nurse who lives in Broomall. "I thought it was beautiful, especially when I learned they contacted the Philadelphia VA to place a disabled veteran there.

"It's heartwarming that others would feel that way about my grandfather," said Rafferty, who often joined Guarnere during casino visits. "I was very close to him."

She was "upset when the house went up for sale" because she remembered it with affection.

"But he would be thrilled that it will be going to a disabled veteran," she said. "He always donated to veterans' causes. . . . I think my grandfather is up there with a big smile on his face."

The agreement of sale for the house was written Oct. 29 and the settlement was Nov. 25.

The sacrifices of men and women from the World War II era should always be remembered, said Bennett, who hopes to someday donate the house to a veteran.

"Every holiday, my dad put out the American flag at the front door," Bennett said. "There is less a sense of nation and patriotism" today.

"If we don't bind the country together with a common goal, everything falls apart," he said. This house "was not about money; it was preservation and a good cause."