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From Vietnam to lawyer to pastor

December 4, 2019
By NATHAN MAYBERG ( , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

For St. Raphael's Episcopal Church Pastor John Adler, leading the Fort Myers Beach congregation is just his latest call to duty. He calls the church "the best kept secret on the Beach."

The beauty of the church and its scenic campus are a far cry from the jungles of Vietnam and the trials of the courtroom, places Adler spent before turning to the ministry.

At 77, he works part-time leading the St. Raphael's faithful with some of the same leadership qualities that made him a captain in the Army. He has lived in Fort Myers the past 20 years but his story started out on the south side of Chicago.

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St. Raphael’s Episcopal Church Pastor John Adler served as a Captain in the Army and as a trial lawyer in Illinois before joining the ministry and moving to Florida.


His family wasn't religious. As a young boy, he was drawn to a local Methodist church by a friend.

"There were teachers in that Sunday school that loved me and I knew it," he said.

His father sent him off to Shattuck-Saint Mary's, an Episcopal boarding school in Minnesota, for the last two years of high school.

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"He wanted me to do better, to excel in academics," Adler said. "I thoroughly enjoyed it."

Adler liked the "military part of it," and the liturgy. He was confirmed there.

After a school trip to Europe, he joined the Army and was made a platoon sergeant. He attended Officer Candidate School in Georgia and was promoted to 2nd Lt. He went to jump school and then flight school. During the Vietnam War, he flew with the 18th Aviation Company on transport and resupply missions. Those transports included cargo, as well as those who had been wounded and the bodies of those who died. On his return stateside, he became the personal pilot for Maj. Gen. Frank Britton.

He lost his close friend, William Cawthorne, in the war. They knew each other through Officer Candidate School. Cawthorne was piloting a helicopter during a reconnaissance mission in 1964 when he was killed. He was awarded the Silver Star posthumously for his actions.

When he thinks of Cawthorne, Adler recalls seeing his friend with his new bride, "a charming young woman," outside San Francisco before their deployment. Adler was with his wife Wanda who was pregnant with their first child.

"When I go to the wall, I visit him and touch his name and say good morning, good afternoon to Bill," Adler said.

After the war, Adler studied economics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and graduated from the Chicago-Kent College of Law. He became a trial lawyer specializing in personal injury cases.

"It's a strange practice. As you become more and more recognized in the field, what the reward is more and more seriously injured clients," he said.

By the 1980s, Adler changed his mind about what he wanted to do.

"I realized what I really enjoyed was the time I spent with my clients in their homes, in their recovery."

So he spent three years at the Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Illinois, becoming a minister.

"You go from a huge salary to not much," he said. "My wife was very supportive of the decision."

They moved to Florida where Adler went to work for a church in Siesta Key. He later became the founding pastor of Saint Monica's Episcopal Church in Naples before starting the Iona-Hope Episcopal Church. After retiring, he was called back into service to take over at St. Raphael's.

"It's a very seasonal congregation," he said. "We go from 100, 125 people down to 35 in the summer months."

The church is known on the beach for its all-you-can-eat shrimp dinners held at Comfort Hall. The next one will be Dec. 7.

"They are fun," Adler said. "The hope is that as time goes by, more of the proceeds will be used for outreach."

The congregation aids Choice Market at Beach Baptist Church.

St. Raphael's dates back to the 1950s and the campus includes three buildings tucked off the main road on Williams Drive under the shade of palm trees. There is a memorial garden area and plenty of grass.

Adler likes the flooring in the chapel, which was built in part with elements from the beach. Due to the trouble in finding an organist, the church uses a digital organ that can play approximately 6,000 songs.

"It takes a little bit getting used to," he said.

One of his favorite parts of the Bible is the Gospel of John.

"I love the academic challenge of figuring out what John was saying," Adler said.

The minister keeps his sermons short and humorous.

"I try to keep them real. I'm an aisle preacher. I don't like to use a pulpit. It's more personal that way," Adler said.

"This place is really special."



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