Aptly identified by Rep. Jim Moran as the “very embodiment” of what’s been called America’s Greatest Generation, longtime Falls Church resident Walter Mess was honored before a standing-room-only crowd at the American Legion Hall here Sunday. The occasion was the dedication of a plaza named in his honor on the W&OD Trail at N. Oak Street.
“Longtime Falls Church resident” in Mr. Mess’ case is an understatement. He is 99 years young and, as everyone could see there Sunday, going very strong. His remarks were delivered firmly and with resolve.
None of his 99 years have gone for naught, either. Mess is known locally for his seminal role and persisting influence to help found and develop the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA), including its W&OD trail, for 46 years.
But before that he spent his youth marching at the head of FDR’s first inauguration (as he said Sunday) and then as a hero serving the U.S. Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, operating behind enemy lines in Thailand and Burma and rescuing over 200 downed American aviators, earning a Purple Heart and more recently the OSS Distinguished Service Award.
Walter Mess participated in the founding of the NVRPA in 1959, and served as its second chairman from 1975 to 2004. In 2004, he was a founding member of the NVRPA Foundation.
When the W&OD Trail first opened in 1974, Mess oversaw its development, 45 miles from Shirlington to Purcellville, that was completed in 1988. He led the expansion of the NVRPA to encompass 19 parks, 10,000 acres and hundreds of trails. In 1999, a new headquarters building of the NVRPA was named in his honor.
Sunday’s event was organized by Falls Church resident Roger Neighborgall, himself a World War II hero who at 88 years of age, was just a boy next to Mess.
After an introduction by Falls Church Mayor Nader Baroukh, Barry Buschow, Falls Church’s representative on the NVRPA board for 22 years, invited the audience to behold the 88-year-old Neighborgall introducing the 99-year-old Mess. That’s 187 years of heroism and achievement.
Brian Knapp, current chair of the NVRPA, spelled out the growth of the NVRPA under Mess direction that now includes a 120-member staff.
Having the new Walter Mess Plaza adjacent both the American Legion Hall and the W&OD Trail is fitting, Rep. Moran said Sunday. It is the junction of two major accomplishments of Mess’ life. “In the OSS, he saved thousands of lives, and now, thousands of people a day enjoy the trail,” he said.
“I am the one who’s had the fun,” Mess said, following Moran to the podium Sunday. “It all comes down to ‘genchi,’ to making other people feel good.'” He cited Rep. Moran, Rep. Gerry Connolly, State Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, Mayor Baroukh, Neighborgall and Buschow, saying “All have given time and talent to make Falls Church work.” He cited the News-Press editor, too. “He does it. He makes it work,” Mess said. “You never know who makes things happen.”
It’s how he’s operated building the NVRPA, he said. “We started with nothing. It took eight bond issues to raise the money. But now we have 11,000 acres of land enjoyed by six to 10 million people a year, including two million a year who enjoy the W&OD Trail,” he said.
Mess was led outside the hall to the plaza by Neighborgall, who gave him a perfectly good bottle of champagne to smash against the commemorative stone there as a rite of dedication.
Following all the greetings and well-wishers on the brisk afternoon, a five kilometer fun was kicked off from the location, an annual benefit to support the W&OD Trail.