Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Walter Mess leaves lasting legacy

Founder of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority leaves lasting legacy after 100 years

Walter L. Mess, who established the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority and was a member of its Board for more than 45 years, passed away on Sunday, May 26, at the age of 100. During his more than four decades on the NVRPA Board, the agency preserved over 10,000 acres of land.

I am humbled to be the current chair of NVRPA, knowing that Walter Mess chaired the Park Authority Board for 30 years,” said Brian Knapp, current Chairman of the NVPRA Board. “His vision, leadership, and his commitment to parks, trails, outdoor recreation and open space will be forever enduring.”

Walter Mess in the center on the deck of the boat he commanded
Mr. Mess grew up in Alexandria with a passion for outdoor adventures like hunting, fishing, hiking and boating, which he did throughout the region. In 1939, before the U.S. had entered World War II, he was recruited by a professor at Georgetown Law School to join the British Secret Service. His mission was to parachute into Nazi-controlled areas of Poland and Czechoslovakia to organize and train resistance fighters. When the U.S. entered the war, he joined the Office of Strategic Services (OSS; predecessor to the CIA) and conducted commando missions into North Africa prior to the Allied invasion. He later was sent to Asia where he commanded a speed boat (similar to a PT Boat) in operations in and around Burma. Decades later, he was given an honorary Green Beret status for his bravery and innovation in special operations.

Interestingly, it was via his military service that Mr. Mess was inspired to create a future park agency in his home state. While stationed in San Diego, California, he visited Balboa Park, a 1,200-acre urban park that was used as a Navy base during the war. Seeing this great park influenced his actions for years to come.

Upon returning from WWII, he worked for nearly 10 years to get state authorization to form a regional park system, while he built local support for the concept throughout the region. In 1959, the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority was born with the support of Falls Church, Fairfax County and Arlington County. By 1961, Bull Run Regional Park was established with 537 acres. Just 10 years later, NVRPA had over 4,000 acres. By the time Mr. Mess stepped down from the Park Authority Board, it had over 10,000 acres. During his tenure on the Board, the Authority also expanded to include the Cities of Alexandria and Fairfax as well as Loudoun County. As a Regional Park Agency with six member jurisdictions, NVRPA is unique in Virginia.

In 2005 Mr. Mess said, “our whole idea was to protect the watershed and give people access to the water.” Always modest, he was quick to add: “this whole thing [NVRPA] … I’m being given credit for [something] I didn’t do; the people around me did.”

While Walter Mess loved the many waterparks, golf courses, historic sites, campgrounds, marinas and other facilities of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, he was most proud of the W&OD Trail. The first section of the W&OD Trail was established in 1974 in his home town of Falls Church by NVRPA, and over the next 10 years it expanded to its current 45-mile length.

Barry Buschow, an NVRPA Board representative from the City of Falls Church, remembers Walter Mess as an extremely active member of the local community, who worked tirelessly to donate his time wherever possible. “Having grown up in Falls Church just around the corner from Walter, I really didn’t get to know him until 23 years ago when I applied to be on the NVRPA Board from the City of Falls Church. What I learned about him shaped the rest of my life,” Buschow said. “Starting in 1946, Walter began volunteering his time, expertise and elbow grease to acquire land for city streets. He was a member of many different boards and organizations, and founded so many different successful causes, from raising money for athletic fields to personally building bookcases for the local library.”

In 1999, Mr. Mess was honored when the NVRPA headquarters building in Fairfax Station was officially dedicated as the Walter Mess Building. He would step down from the Authority’s Board in 2004, and was elected Chairman Emeritus. Since that time, he had served on the Board of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Foundation, the non-profit that raises money to support the mission of the Authority.

"Walter was a pretty hard guy to summarize, but one trait that always impressed me was his boundless enthusiasm for life and all of its challenges and opportunities," said William Baskin, member of the Regional Park Foundation. "It was impossible not to notice and admire this. I will miss him. Walter, I'll see you when the roses bloom again."

“Our friend and long-time colleague, Walter Mess, had a dream – the preservation of unspoiled areas of natural beauty and places of historic significance for the enjoyment of Northern Virginians far into the future,” said NVRPA Board member David Pritzker from the City of Alexandria. “ Through more than a half century of inspiration, political acumen and just plain hard work, Walter achieved that dream and lived to see the success of the legacy he created for all of us.”

Walter was married for 62 years to his wife Jean, who passed away in 2002, and had four children and ten grandchildren.

“Considering that each year there are millions of uses of the Regional Park System that Walter helped create, few if any have left the kind of lasting legacy that Walter Mess has. He will be remembered and missed by all who knew him,” remarked Paul Gilbert, NVRPA Executive Director.

Donations in honor of Walter Mess can be sent to the Northern Virginia Regional Park Foundation (NVRPF) at 5400 Ox Road, Fairfax Station, VA 22039.

“There is much more to this story and the man we know and love as Walter,” remarked Barry Buschow. “ He was always there with a helping hand and a pipe, with words of advice. Northern Virginia will miss him as the father of Regional Parks and the Washington and Old Dominion Railroad Regional Park (W&OD). His community will miss him as he was one of our great leaders, and I will miss him as one of my best friends.”

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