When your eyes are wide open, you can see things in the unseen in the marvelous, magical moments of life. For Les Messamer, his connection to the Native American people for the past 40 years has filled him with a sense of purpose and identity.
In the home he shares with his wife of 63 years, Mary, there are Native American artifacts adorning the home’s walls, bookshelves, and furnishings, each with its own story of friendship, spirituality or a quality that captures a captivating message for Messamer.
Story after story is embedded in his life experience as a Native American wanderer.
Messamer was born and raised in Dallas County, Iowa, just west of Des Moines, on a sharecropper’s farm.
“We planted corn, oats and alfalfa, and raised pigs and cows, and used horses for most of the work.” The Great Depression years were hard for the family. His brother was 11 years his junior, born on his birthday.
In 1945, when Messamer was 18, he joined the Army. “I wanted to be a fighter pilot, and passed all the tests, but there was a long waiting list.”
He was assigned to Bakersfield, Calif., as a military policeman, where he “guarded POWs among other duties,” before the war ended six months later.
After his discharge from the Army, Messamer returned to farming, renting farm land for two years to carry on the tradition of his upbringing.
He joined the Church of the Brethren, which began the Heifer Project in 1945-1946.
He had an inkling to travel so he applied to the church as one of 27 “sea-going cowboys” from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and North Dakota, to transport heifers to China, the first ship to transport animals to an Asian country. He had to join the Merchant Marines to be accepted for the travel.
“We were on the ship for three and a half months and logged 33,000 nautical miles.”
They began the trip with 763 milk cows and arrived with 800 cows and calves. They distributed their load in Shanghai to orphanages among other organizations, and the policy was for each recipient to “share their gift with another family” once their heifer gave birth.
“I loved being on the ocean and found it exhilarating. There were days that the ocean was without a ripple and it looked like you could just ice-skate across the top of it. There were storms, of course, but one typhoon pushed us 600 miles off course and we were within a degree of capsizing.” After the ship left Shanghai, they sailed to New Zealand and collected more cattle and some sheep.
“We were to take them to Hong Kong, but received a wire just in time to say it was dangerous, that the Communists had taken over Hong Kong and some sailors had been captured. So we went back to Shanghai.”
Our time in Shanghai proved true to its reputation of being the “largest, most crowded, noisiest, and filthiest place in the world,” at that time. After his sailing adventures, he sailed back home and planted another crop in his Iowa cornfields.
In 1950, Messamer went to McPherson College on the G.I. Bill, graduating in just three years, with degrees in history and education.
He met Mary, who was studying business and education, and they married in December, 1949.
Their three children began to come along in the next three years and they moved to Kerwin, Kan., where Messamer taught junior high school for six years. “I had a great rapport with the kids and coached basketball, baseball and track, as well.”
In 1960, Messamer attend Kansas State University where he earned a master’s degree in education and psychology. He was hired as an elementary school principal in a consolidated school district of six schools.
“I had the charge of over 1,000 students, with only one secretary to help me. No assistant principal, no school nurse, and no school counselor.”
He maintained that job until moving to Buena Vista in 1969, to fill the position of elementary principal at Irwin W. Avery Elementary School, now known as Avery-Parsons. He eventually became the middle school principal and took up additional work as sports announcer on KVRH Radio. In 1978 he left education and became a full-time radio voice.
“The biggest story I covered was about an airplane crash on Mt. Yale. I passed along 23 stories to the Associated Press. There were so many amazing stories of miracles and survival that came out of that tragedy.”
As a reporter, he also covered a live, breaking story of a bomb threat in the skating rink, (now Colorado Kayak Supply), and was on the air saying, “Well, the rink is scheduled to blow up in ten seconds,” but of course, he says, “I knew it had been thoroughly inspected and cleared by the bomb squad.” Sports broadcasting also thrilled Messamer.
“I got to cover the first BVHS championship games in basketball, football and track, and I was the first ever to broadcast wrestling.”
In addition to his work in education, coaching, and broadcasting, Messamer was also the starter for the BVHS track meets for more than 30 years.
He has served the community in a number of other ways, as well. He has been a hunter education instructor in Buena Vista for 43 years, on the board of New Bees, and involved with the community garden.
In 1978, Messamer went to Denver to broadcast the girls’ high school basketball tournament. That weekend there was a Native American “Pow Wow” going on at the Denver Coliseum, so Mary and I decided to check it out, he recalled.
There were 900 dances in the full regalia and the stands were filled with Native Americans. It turns out it was a ceremony honoring a deceased man, and the family was having a “Give Away Ceremony,” that ends a year of mourning with the passing on of all of the man’s personal belongings; it was to recognize that it is time to go on with life.”
That began Messamer’s love affair with the Native American culture.
For the past three-plus decades, Messamer has soaked up and shared everything he can about the Native American cultures. He has performed with his drum and stories for many schools in Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas.
He has performed for the McGinnis Middle School Conservation Camp for more than 20 years. He has also been very active in work with Native American prisoners, and has repaired over 80 Native American drums in prisons throughout Colorado.
In 2011, he and Mary were honored as Elders in a Pow Wow at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs for their years of devotion to the Native American cultures.
Today you might just find Messamer in a “sweat lodge” south of town, in fervent prayer and meditation.
“A group of us meets there about twice a month. It’s amazing how powerful this experience can be. Miracles truly do happen.”