As a youth, Bill Messmer [1903-1973] found his love of music while attending Detroit’s Eastern High School. Musically gifted, he directed and organized a 16 piece orchestra as a teen. His mother recollected how Bill would purchase his sheet music at the Jerome H. Remick music ‘house’ in Detroit. One day, she ran the errand of picking up his sheet music and had an encounter with the famous composerRichard Whiting, [nice story at that link] who managed the desk as a fledgling composer. Continue reading “US Navy Rear Admiral William Leroy Messmer – Park 77”
“The past can take you to the future.” – Shirley Burch, NE Detroit Community Activist
Last week I was at Bishop Field with a friend. An older longtime Detroiter chatted us up. He said “Oh Detroit will NEVER be great again. It will never be like it was. And young people can’t make a living off being farmers, so we got to knock that off”. This conversation seems to always present itself when I randomly run into folks when trolling Detroit parks. I think what’s really happening is people won’t believe it until they see it. I say re-imagine the definition of great, ditch the negativity and believe instead.
There was a time when Detroit was first.. cars, industry, pharmaceuticals, the arsenal of democracy, leadership, a burgeoning film industry, parks system was in the Top 5. I don’t find these stories because I want to harken back to the way it was. I don’t revel or get off on WWII stories either [and there are a lot of them in this blog]. My plain aim: Give Detroit something to think about.
Fixating on the past isn’t productive but glancing backwards is a-ok. Glancing backwards, we see Detroit was paved with the dedicated, the super smart, the kind and the exceptional and oh some crappy people too. Glance around now and see the synergy that is taking place.. we can collectively say ‘We still got it and maybe even more of it now..along with the trash, crime and blight’.
So, here’s a story about an exceptional Detroiter from way back.. despite today’s deficiencies, we were and are still exceptional. And yes, back in the day, we were often first like Mr. Cannon.
Yet another story of bravery and sacrifice .. I hope you aren’t tired.. we have a long way to go.. andrea
DETROIT’S ADOPTED SON
Bernard Sasser [1920-1945] was a courageous man; one who exemplified leadership and duty before self. He is honored with a large and well used memorial park nestled between Harper [I-94 service drive] and Lanark Street on Detroit’s east city limits. This park was slated to be closed back in 2013 when funds in Detroit dried up. Sasser Playground was well kept when we visited in the summer of 2014 – baseball games, football practice was in full session and the park was full of kids and parents. Good times.
MINDING THE FIELDS
Sasser enlisted to serve in World War II. He was assigned to Army Company G, 222nd Infantry Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division and where he rose to the rank of Staff Sergeant. During a February 1945 watch near Alsace, France, he observed a patrol of US soldiers attempting to cross through a mine field he had previously scouted. Sasser voluntarily guided the group through the field for safe passage. Upon completion the patrol came under heavy enemy fire. He took command and moved to the head of the squad where he was struck by bullets and grenade fragments when attempting to sieze an enemy machine gun. He protected this patrol of soldiers outside of his own company from harm’s way and died while missing in action. Sasser earned the Silver Star posthumously for his gallantry.
Three years before that dark fateful night, he moved to Detroit with his mother Anne settling in on Strasburg Street. A bachelor with few ties to our city, he became an adopted son. A native of Massachusetts, he is buried in St. Bernard’s Cemetery in Fitchburg, MA.
Jan Brookins attended Detroit’s Denby High school where he ran track. He was known around the neighborhood as a fair-minded and sportsmanlike teenager. He often planned activities and refereed games for the neighborhood kids at the play lot next to his house. Frederick and Jean Brookins moved into the east side neighborhood at Rossiter and Grayton when Jan was a baby in 1940.
WHAT ARE THE ODDS?
In early September 1957, Jan and his friend Gary were practicing on the outdoor high school track at Denby High School when a thunderstorm hit. As they began running towards the locker room, Brookins was struck in the chest by a bolt of lightning. He was dead on arrival at Saratoga General Hospital. He was 17.
On January 15, 1959, the Detroit Common Council passed an ordinance to designate the empty lot next to the Brookin’s house as the “Jan A. Brookins Memorial Playground”. This small but tidy neighborhood playground is still used in 2014. A large sycamore anchors the corner of the playground which is stocked with newer play equipment. It seems that being struck by lightning is a freakish occurrence, yet National Geographic reports the odds of being the victim of a US lightning strike [during a one year period] are 1 in 700,000. Detroit lost a gem of a teenager that September day.
Tucked behind and to the side of Denby High School is the Lyle Maxton Skinner Memorial Playfield. Stocked with newer equipment, this playground is attractive and services the neighborhood off Duchess and Morang on Detroit’s eastside.
Lyle grew up on the west side of Michigan. Married to Jennie and living in Flint, he enlisted in the US Navy on June 15, 1937. During World War II he served aboard the Aircraft Carrier the USS Hornet. As a Watertender First Class, Lyle worked in the ship’s engine room / boiler room. October 26, 1942 marked the battle of the Santa Cruz Islands located in the Pacific Ocean north the Solomon Islands. In this battle, the US military was playing a game of catch-up against numerically superior Japanese forces. The Japanese were heavily bombing ships in the area. During the attack, the USS Hornet was being violently shaken by bursting bombs and Skinner was ordered to abandon ship. Instead, Lyle entered an oil-filled elevator pit and rescued a trapped shipmate who would have died otherwise. The USS Hornet later sunk.
Lyle’s courage and heroism earned him the honor and award of the Navy Cross. Unlike many war heroes, Lyle lived through this experience and was able to accept the medal personally. He returned to the west side of Michigan and died in the small village of Leroy, Michigan in 1984.