Restaurant co-founder named a Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan
By JAY SKEBBA | The Blade, Toledo, Ohio | Published: October 26, 2019
(Tribune News Service) — Ezekiel Villa had no idea what he was in for when he accompanied his older brothers to an Army recruiting station in Eagle Pass, Texas, in 1948.
Mr. Villa, who was 14 at the time, tagged along despite being told to stay home. His brothers and several other young men were there to take an Army entrance exam. The sergeant passed out tests to everyone in the room -- including Mr. Villa, who sat in the back.
Not only did Mr. Villa take the test, but he was the only one in the class who passed.
"The sergeant asked how many years of school my father had," said Dina Villa, Mr. Villa's daughter. "He told the truth and held up four fingers on his hand. The sergeant assumed that meant four years of high school, but my father was telling him he had a fourth grade education."
Mr. Villa enlisted in the Army Air Corps, the precursor to the Air Force, at 14.
Mr. Villa, now 86, lives with dementia. His daughter told The Blade his story from inside El Tipico, the Mexican restaurant Mr. Villa and his wife started in 1968.
Mr. Villa made a deal with his father to send him most of his paychecks if he agreed to sign a document saying Mr. Villa was 17. Mr. Villa was to present a high school diploma and other papers to the sergeant before his service began.
"They had a certain number of people they needed to recruit every month before they received their pay," Ms. Villa said. "The sergeant signed the paperwork saying he had seen everything, but said, 'Make sure your dad gets a hold of me next week.' It never happened."
Four years after enlisting, Mr. Villa was up for a promotion and came clean knowing his secret would be revealed. He was threatened with a court martial, but worked out a deal by volunteering to be shipped to Korea during the Korean War.
Mr. Villa worked in administration, but volunteered to fill in for a major on an armored Jeep. The vehicle was ambushed by Chinese soldiers and Mr. Villa was shot in the legs, severely beaten, left unconscious, and stripped of everything but his pants.
Ms. Villa said her father was mistaken for a Chinese soldier and taken prisoner by Americans until he was recognized in the hospital three days later.
"[The U.S. soldiers] used a bayonet to stab the thighs to see who was alive, so they stabbed him in the thigh," Ms. Villa said. "They said, 'This one's alive. What should we do with him?' By the grace of god, the sergeant said, 'Let's take that one with us.'"
Mr. Villa was eventually stationed in Toledo and retired from the Air Force in 1969. He operated the restaurant with his wife until 2000, when their son took over.
Mr. Villa attended Toledo Bible College after the war and became a minister. He started the first Spanish speaking church in the city and played a role in the Toledo Police Department hiring its first Mexican officer.
Mr. Villa was honored by Toledo City Council in September and is being recognized Saturday at the Statehouse in Columbus as a Distinguished Hispanic Ohioan.
City Council issued a proclamation that read, in part: "Ezekiel has honorably served our country in an exemplary manner. He has not only made sacrifices to protect his country, but has also demonstrated a sense of selflessness in his willingness to protect our nation and all its families who live free.
Ezekiel is also founder of Toledo's oldest Mexican restaurant and Ohio's only fresh and organic Mexican restaurant, El Tipico, which has been recognized by the city of Toledo for its service to the community for over 51 years."
The proclamation also said that Mr. Villa is the youngest person "on record" to serve in the U.S. military.
During one of his better days, Mr. Villa told his daughter everyone who served should be recognized.
"It should be for all the men and women who served their country and love their country like I do," he told her.
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