The Real Deal
Sherlock Holmes, Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, Kojak, Columbo, Nero Wolfe, Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Charlie Chan. . . . The list of famous (albeit fictional) detectives goes on and on, conjuring up images of brilliant deductions, daring exploits, and frequent danger, with dashes of humor thrown in for good measure.
Maybe that’s because Ralph was rooted in the community in a way that none of those phony detectives were in theirs. His ancestors came from Scotland to America in 1720, eventually settling in Franklin, PA. In 1908 Ralph’s grandfather Jack bought 57 acres of farmland in Hickory Township that stretched from State Street to Morefield, between Route 18 and Maple Drive.
That’s where Ralph grew up, along with four brothers and two sisters. He proved himself to be hard-working and resourceful, supporting himself from the age of 14 with a newspaper and magazine route. After high school he worked for a short time as delivery driver for the Sharon Store. Then in 1940 he got a job in plant protection at Carnegie Steel. That turned out to provide a direction for the rest of his working life.
That same year he married Virginia Llewellyn from Wheatland and moved into the house on State Street where the sign for his detective agency still stands. So by the age of 20, Ralph had planted the roots of both his family and his career.
Ralph’s military service provided another stepping stone for his career. He was drafted in 1942 and became a Military Policeman, stationed in Baltimore, Maryland
“We worked the streets at night, checking the railroad stations and bus terminals for AWOLs, and looking for military people who were having too good a time,” Ralph said. “Wherever soldiers were, we were there. Saturday nights used to be bad down there, with all the soldiers coming in on weekend passes.”
Ralph’s law enforcement duties continued after he returned home in 1946. First he was elected constable; then he was hired as Hickory Township’s lone police officer. The township couldn’t afford to provide him with a uniform, so he wore the one he had used while working in plant security at Carnegie.
In the 1950s, Hickory Township was a far cry from streets of Baltimore and the big-city milieu of detective novels. But Barbara Hunter, Ralph and Virginia’s only child, noted its resemblance to a famous TV locale.
“Hickory Township used to be like Mayberry,” she said. “We had the town guy that always got drunk. First Daddy was the only policeman, and then another policeman came on the force who was just like Barney Fife. He was real hyper and everything. Someone called and said she had problems with a mouse or rat. He went and he shot his gun into a hole in the wall where he thought the rat was. Daddy would go to serve papers, and there would be chickens running across the kitchen table.”
Ralph was elected Justice of the Peace in 1954. He had an office in the garage behind his house. That made his work somewhat of a family affair.
“I remember playing in the back yard,” Barbara said. “Attorneys would come, and state police. I remember they used to hang their guns in our kitchen. And Daddy would marry people in our living room. I would always play the piano and Mom would serve as witness.”
That set the scene for an occasional humorous event.
“Once I was marrying a couple,” Ralph said. “I asked him do you take this woman to be your lawful wife. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there.”
“Then he said no,” Barbara said. “She grabbed a hold of him and threw him up against the wall, knocked over Dad’s adding machine and broke it.”
While serving as Justice of the Peace, Ralph saw the need for a private security and detective agency in the area. In 1962 he applied for and received the first Private Detective license in Mercer County. As a detective, he handled mostly domestic cases. Sometimes it was difficult, but at other times people made it remarkably easy for him. Once he was on a case down at the Holiday Inn. He wanted a picture of a man and woman who were there on a tryst. He told them he got a new camera and wanted to try it out. They actually let him take their picture.
The agency truly became a family business when Barbara got her detective license in Pennsylvania and Ohio. She taught for 16 years in the Warren schools and did some investigative work for her father on the side.
Before long the agency started providing security for manufacturing plants and local retail stores, such as Grant’s. Once while he was still Justice of the Peace he arrested three shoplifters, put them in the back seat of his convertible, and hauled them off to the Mercer jail.
But it was the plant security business that grew into a major operation.
“I got a call one Saturday morning from the Crane Company down in New Castle,” Ralph said. “They wanted to know if I could come furnish guards for the weekend. I said yeah. I went down and talked with him, and he wanted to know when I could start. I said if you want me to start today, I’ll start.”
From there his security business grew by leaps and bounds, mostly on referrals and recommendations. Barbara’s husband Michael Hunter joined the firm as vice president of the guards.
“Rockwell called the Crane Company to see about me,” Ralph said. “So I started at the Rockwell plant. I had every plant in New Castle before I left, and plants in Ellwood City and Butler.”
He expanded to Cooper Energy in Grove City and Mount Vernon, then to plants in Ashtabula, Ohio, and in Jamestown, New York.
“When they closed the Rockwell plant down in New Castle, the plant manager got a job up in Jamestown. We had a farewell party for him in New Castle. He said you’ll be coming up there, too. After he was there a couple of months he called for me to come up and furnish guards to him. I had to get licensed in New York.”
The growth of the security business had nothing to do with luck. It had a lot to do with Ralph’s commitment to constantly improving his operation.
“I loved to go in to visit the plant manager and get their ideas on things. And I would talk to the personnel man and pick up what they were talking about. Then I would go out to the car and I’d write a lot of it down, and kept track of it so I would know how to operate better when I went to the next plant. That’s how I picked up a lot of information.”
His security work in plants with government contracts precipitated a touch of international intrigue.
“Every time we went out of the country we had to give them details of where we were going,” Barbara said. “When Mom and I were on a trip to Germany, this one woman kept following us around, trying to pair up with us. Then we got into East Berlin, and she was trying to find out stuff about Daddy’s business. She knew some of the details before I had even told her. Mom and I acted like we weren’t onto her. She was supposed to be an American on a tour, but at different stops she would meet this man and talk with him and then get back onto the tour.”
On the other hand, the security business provided occasional humorous incidents. Ralph, sometimes accompanied by Barbara’s husband Michael, would go around in the middle of the night to make sure the guards were doing their jobs. Once they found a guard sleeping on a table in his sleeping bag.
“We took his shoes and 15 or 20 minutes later we made a little bit of noise. He woke up and saw us coming in. I asked him if he was getting sleepy. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m not sleepy.’ But we had his shoes in our hands.”
The agency indirectly touched the world of fiction in 1987 when Tiger Warsaw was being filmed in Sharon. Patrick Swayze felt the need for a body guard, so Kilgore’s was contracted to provide one for him.
The work also included some family fun, particularly while providing security at the Stoneboro Fair. Michael’s and Barbara’s two children wore Kilgore Security uniforms and rode around on a golf cart with their father. The biggest incident there occurred when someone found out that the dunking booth was rigged. They had a switch on it that controlled the release.
“The whole crowd descended on the operator,” Barbara said. “The state police had to be called.”
In 1998 Ralph sold the security division to Doyle Security of Erie, who sold it a year later to Pinkerton’s.
After his wife Virginia passed away in 1999, Ralph continued operating his detective agency. Maybe his work wasn’t filled with the continuous but unreal excitement of detective fiction. But it provided him with so much satisfaction that it kept him working at it until just last year, when he reached the age of 86. No one does that unless they truly love what they do. What more can anyone ask for?
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 2, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2008