Approaching 100th Year, Mess Set High Standard for F.C.
Bigger than life through his near 100 years, long-time City of Falls Church resident, war hero, regional parks founder and civic activist Walter L. Mess died Sunday night, on the eve of the City’s annual Memorial Day festival, where news of his passing was first announced publicly during a solemn late morning service at the City’s Veterans Memorial.
According to his long-time friend and F.C. civic activist Barry Buschow, a funeral for Mr. Mess will be conducted at the St. James Catholic Church at 10 a.m. Monday, June 3, following visitations Saturday from 6 – 8 p.m., Sunday from 2 – 4 p.m. and 6 – 8 p.m. at Murphy’s Funeral Home, 1102 W. Broad St., Falls Church.
A native of Northern Virginia, Mess was working for a doctor of law agree at the Catholic University in D.C. in 1938 when he was recruited into a covert U.S. military agency that later became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the international spy network that was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Following his $400 purchase of the Seaton Lane property in Falls Church in 1941 that became and remained his home and that of his then newly-wed wife, Jean, and their family ever since, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Army and after two years, undertook clandestine war activities for the OSS that took him to Europe, North Africa and Burma, involving secrets he’d kept for more than 50 years.
The Journal of Army Special Operations History detailed how Mess’ unit, the paramilitary Detachment 101 of the OSS, was instrumental in the use of aerial resupply tro overcome logistical difficulties of operating in north Burma. The operations involved rescuing over 200 downed American aviators, earning him a Purple Heart and the OSS Distinguished Service Award.
But as journalist Al Eisele wrote in a News-Press exclusive in September 2008, entitled, “WWII Spy, F.C. Local Comes Out of the Cold,” on the occasion of the National Archives’ release of 750,000 pages of previously-classified files of Mess and 24,000 others who served with the OSS, Mess promised himself that if he survived the war, he would volunteer 50 percent of his time to his community.
He kept that promise, almost as soon as he returned to Falls Church after the war, including to a four-year-old daughter he’d never seen. He launched a highly-successful real estate, mortgage and insurance business while he and his wife raised two more daughters and a son.
As Buschow wrote in a testament to Mess provided to the News-Press this week, “Starting in 1946, Walter began volunteering his time, expertise and elbow grease to acquire land for city streets. In 1948, he was the chairman of the Southwest Falls Church Citizens Committee, a founding member of the Falls Church Community Park, a member of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce, and a volunteer insurance advisor to the city.”
Buschow added, “In 1949, Walter was first appointed to the Electoral Board and was the chairman for several years, bringing mechanical voting machines to the City of Falls Church. He also helped found the Falls Church Festival in the Virginia Village to raise funds for playing fields. He made book cases for the library. Over the years, he served as president of the Heart Association, as Red Cross and Red Feathers chairman and in numerous professional organizations. He was the 12th chairman of the Falls Church Chamber of Commerce in 1958, and, of course, in 1959 was a founding member and second chairman of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NVRPA), serving since 1975 in the position for 30 years.”
The NVRPA’s Fairfax Station new headquarters building was named for him in 1999.
He served on the NVPRA board for 45 years, and retired as chairman emeritus, serving since on the Northern Virginia Regional Park 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.
The Falls Church City Council honored Mess by declaring “Walter Mess Day” on his 90th birthday in December 2004, and in March 2012 the “Walter Mess Plaza” was dedicated on the W&OD Trail by the American Legion Hall on N. Oak in Falls Church. That ceremony included remarks by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, who hailed Mess as “the very embodiment of what has been called America’s greatest generation.”
The location of the plaza on the W&OD trail by the American Legion was appropos, Moran said. “It is the junction of two major accomplishments in his life. In the OSS, he saved thousands of lives, and now, thousands of people a day enjoy the trail.”
Speaking at that event last year, Mess said, “I am the one who’s had the fun. It all comes down to ‘genchi,’ to making other people feel good,” citing all the people present who “all have given time and talent to make Falls Church work.”
“We started with nothing,” he said about building the NVRPA. “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.”