Many people in central Nebraska are mourning the passing of Ivan Messersmith, who died Wednesday at age 21. He left behind a large number of relatives, friends and admirers, including his National Guard family.
The Grand Island native was doing well in aircraft maintenance for the Nebraska Army National Guard.
At the time of his death, he was a crew chief for a CH-47 Chinook helicopter. It was a “high honor” for Messersmith to be selected for a flight crew so early in his career, said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brandon Bennett, who served with Messersmith in Afghanistan. The Heartland Lutheran graduate was selected for the flight crew “because of his motivation and determination,” Bennett said.
People who knew him said he was unselfish, a great teammate and a leader. They talk about his work ethic and his ever-ready smile.
“He was incredible, I mean. He was such a blessing,” said Dawn Eastin, a secretary at Trinity Lutheran School. “He had joy. I mean, he was a kid, yet he had maturity. He was my boys’ best friend, He just was such a kind soul — just a very respectable young man.
“This just doesn’t seem right,” Eastin said of Messersmith’s death. “He was just a great, great kid — a great example of a loving son, a devoted boyfriend, a devoted friend.”
Messersmith died of an accidental shooting. He was a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“This is a guy who had a plan and was focused,” Eastin said. He was getting his education and serving his country.
“He was a fine young man from a hard-working family,” said Chris Olsen, a teacher at Heartland Lutheran. “They were longtime supporters of the school.”
Messersmith was the youngest of four boys, all of whom attended Heartland Lutheran. His father, Shawn, is a longtime member of the school board.
For those who’ve been at Heartland Lutheran for a long time, Messersmith was “like a member of the family,” Olsen said.
“He was very passionate in his desire to serve the country. He wanted to be in the military for much of the time that I knew him,” said Olsen, a veteran himself.
“He was a leader among his peers and well-thought of ...” Olsen said. “He will be missed. A fine young man. It was a tragic loss.”
Messersmith graduated from Heartland Lutheran in 2018. He was a member of the National Honor Society and senior class president.
“He was a good student and a leader at the school,” said Jacqulyn Zehendner, who’s been a Heartland Lutheran teacher since the school opened 21 years ago.
Messersmith and Devin Hueftle, who graduated from Heartland Lutheran in 2016, were in Afghanistan at the same time. So was Bennett, who currently has two children at Trinity Lutheran. All three men were members of the 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment. The unit received care packages from students at Trinity Lutheran.
“He was just a great kid,” Hueftle said. As a coworker, he always was willing to help out however he could, do whatever he could and was “always willing to learn. And then outside of work, he was just very fun to be around — very happy. (He) made everybody smile.”
At the time of his death, Messersmith was a member of Bravo company. When was deployed, he was a member of Delta company.
“Ivan always carried a smile with him and brought joy” everywhere he went, Bennett said. That joy “just radiated through the guys.”
Messersmith “excelled at every task he was given. And his motivation and determination to succeed really set him apart from others,” Bennett said.
Messersmith’s mother, Carol, is a longtime secretary at Trinity Lutheran School. On Wednesday, at a Veterans Day ceremony at Trinity Lutheran Church, she wore her son’s fatigues to honor the military. Later that day, she found out that her youngest son had died.
Before the military, Messersmith wore the uniform of Heartland Lutheran.
He played football and basketball all four years of high school. He participated in baseball for three years and track for one.
Former Heartland Lutheran Principal Tim Leech was the defensive coordinator for one year of Messersmith’s football career.
Leech has a great memory of Ivan’s performance in a game against Sumner-Eddyville-Miller.
“S-E-M had one shot and I told him exactly where the ball was going to be. He did exactly what I told him and broke up the play.” The Red Hornets won the game.
“That was one of the first wins in a long time for Heartland. That’s one of my big memories of Ivan,” he said.
“He kind of played every position for me on my defense,” said Leech, who was later the head coach.
Messersmith played quarterback his first couple of years at Heartland Lutheran.
“Then he became a lineman. And that was one of the things about Ivan, is his personal pride and ambition never overtook his team goals, and what he wanted to accomplish for his school,” Leech said.
When asked to play different positions or do different things, “Ivan was always willing to give up that personal glory and personal satisfaction to allow those around him to have their shining moment, and have their fame.”
Messersmith was always OK as long as “the team and the school and his family benefited from it. He was a family-first kid, and I think that shows in just about everything that he did, and how people felt about him,” Leech said.
“Ivan took very seriously what it meant to be a Red Hornet,” Leech said. “He concentrated on putting his school first, and that came just from his family.
“His family was dedicated to Heartland Lutheran, and Ivan was just a living example of that. He put his friends before himself, was always looking for a chance to lead his class and just always was looking to put others and give others the opportunity to shine. I think that selflessness is what people are going to remember about Ivan.”
Leech now works at a school in Eustis, Fla., 1,800 miles away from Grand Island.
“From Florida, the Leech family is mourning with the Messersmiths and all of the Red Hornet family,” he said. “I can’t imagine how hard it is on Shawn and Carol.”
Leech became good friends with Shawn during his time at Heartland Lutheran.
“I just want to make sure that they know how much our hearts are breaking with them,” he said. The good thing about Messersmith “is that we just celebrate in knowing that he’s with his Lord and savior.
“Other than his friends and his family, his faith always stood in front of him. He always did things according to that. So even though this tragedy really hits home, it’s also a celebration knowing he’s in heaven with Jesus now. I think that’s a comfort to everybody who knows Ivan because they all know how strong his faith was, and they can take comfort in that.”