Wayne Messmer, Ex-Blackhawks Anthem Singer, to Honor Men Who Saved His Life
After a robbery attempt by two teenage boys, Messmer waited for help, the bullet from a 9mm handgun lodged inside him, in the early hours of April 9, 1994.
He was saved, in part, by the quick action of first responders from the Chicago Fire Department — Henry Hugel and Bill Steiner.
On Saturday, Messmer, now senior executive vice president of the Chicago Wolves, plans to honor the "heroes" who made sure he didn't meet his maker that night. The Wolves will wear special first responders uniforms at the game, and Messmer will have his own jersey in recognition of the occasion.
And at his side during the national anthem will be Hugel, of Edison Park, who will also drop the ceremonial first puck.
"In my world, here's a guy who's one of my heroes," Messmer said of Hugel. "There's no question whatsoever, had I not been attended, I would have been out — dead. Down goes Frazier.
"Intervention was life-saving in my situation," said Messmer.
"That Tie Saved Him"
He headed with some friends to nearby Hawkeye's Bar and Grill, at 1458 W. Taylor St. in Little Italy. They stayed for a few hours before he decided to walk a block and a half to his parked car in the 1500 block of West Fillmore Street.
Just after he had entered his auto, the two teen boys attempted to rob him. One shot through the driver-side window. The bullet hit Messmer in the throat — the originator of his epic voice, which entertained thousands of fans for years at Blackhawks and Cubs games. But instead of passing cleanly through, the bullet struck his necktie, which pushed the tie into the wound, slowing blood loss.
Messmer has the tie — a fancy Save the Children Fund promotional piece — framed in his Glenview home.
Hugel remembers the tie well.
"He was wearing a really nice tie," said Hugel, 50, and a 24-year veteran of the Fire Department. "That tie saved him. He was very lucky. Because of the way it happened, the bullet should have gone in and out. It could have done a lot more damage."
Despite being shot, Messmer was able to drive back to Hawkeye's, where someone called 911. Hugel arrived on the scene and immediately recognized Messmer. Hugel was a Blackhawks season ticket holder from 1981 to 2000, with tickets in the second row of the upper deck, right behind the Blackhawks' bench.
Hugel had not attended the game against the Blues because he was working a 24-hour shift on Ambulance 28, headquartered in Greektown.
"It was weird getting him for a run," Hugel said. "I'm sure I've seen hundreds of shootings, but I don't remember many of them. But seeing him do the national anthem, being at all of those games, it will always remind me of that incident."
Hugel said he and Steiner were with Messmer only for about an hour, first taking him on a gurney from Hawkeye's foyer to their ambulance 20 feet away, where they assessed the situation. Hugel said Messmer "was conscious and talking the whole time" they dressed his wound and drove him to Cook County Hospital a few blocks away.
They arrived at the hospital and wheeled Messmer through its emergency room and up a small elevator to its third-floor trauma unit. And then, Hugel and Steiner left to finish the rest of their shift.
"I just remember them being matter-of-fact," Messmer, 63, said. "I was so vulnerable at that point, and I trusted them to do what needed to be done immediately and get me somewhere where they could do the right sort of triage.
"It was their calmness more than anything else that I'll remember," he said.
"I Will Never Forget What He Said"
Around 2 a.m., the Messmers' home phone rang.
Messmer's wife, Kathleen, picked it up, and on the other end was Cook County Hospital surgeon Seth Krosner.
"I assumed it was a car accident, and I will never forget what he said," Kathleen Messmer said. "He said, 'We have your husband here, and he's been shot — in the neck.' And I told him that he makes his living with his voice."
Kathleen Messmer called her in-laws, Wayne and Dolores, to tell them their son had been shot. She called a neighbor to drive her to the hospital because she was "too goofy" to do it. But she also made sure to leave ample food for the family dog, Squirt, a 7-pound stray poodle mix she had found in front of her in-laws' home in Brighton Park the previous Christmas.
When she arrived at the hospital, her in-laws already were there.
"I walked in the door, and my father-in-law said, 'We have to be brave, and we're going to get through this,'" she said.
The elder Wayne Messmer was correct.
Krosner knew what Messmer did for a living, "so they didn't do a hatchet job on me," said Messmer, who remained at County Hospital for a few days before being transported to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
The operation to remove the bullet was a success, and even though Messmer said his throat looked like a "Pez dispenser," he was in good spirits and able to communicate by writing.
Messmer eventually would regain his voice, and just more than six months later, on Oct. 14, 1994, he sang the national anthem in front of a sellout crowd at the Wolves' franchise opener.
Messmer healed, and moved on. The teens who shot him were caught, and one was sentenced to 21 years in prison for attempted murder.
Messmer would return to Hawkeye's and park in the same spot where he was shot. Messmer also visited one of the teens in prison several times, to tell him he forgave him.
"I'm not haunted by this at all," Messmer said. "I've dealt with it. Not to be morbid, but I think you need to face the fears and get past them."
The Spotlight's on Him
The day after her husband nearly died, Kathleen Messmer watched a commercial that featured the song "Break My Stride."
She has embraced the chorus of that song — "Ain't nothin' gonna break my stride/ Nobody's gonna slow me down, oh-no/I got to keep on movin' " — since then. When Kathleen, also an accomplished vocalist, frequently performs the anthem with her husband at Cubs games, organist Gary Pressey always plays that song just before they begin.
Kathleen said she has a "very large hug and a great big thank you" planned for Hugel on Saturday. She said maybe Hugel and other first responders' theme song "is the same as mine."
Perhaps she's right. Hugel said his job is all about staying focused and remaining humble.
"We're just normal people," said Hugel, now a member of the Squad 1 Special Operations Team Downtown that handles major fires and other calamities. "We don't go around going on television saying 'we do this, we do that.' We're there when you need us."
Of course, Hugel could brag if he wanted. In 1994, he won the Paramedic of Valor award and was later named Chicago's Paramedic of the Year after grabbing a suicidal woman before she jumped off the Van Buren Bridge.
It was Messmer's idea to honor his personal first responders this year at Saturday's game against the Iowa Wild, which begins at 7 p.m. Steiner, who still works for the Fire Department, is unable to attend the game, Wolves officials said.
Hugel will be taking his wife, Angela, and their three children — Lindsay, 21; Ashley, 17; and Adam, 11 — to the game. He said he's excited to have seats closer to the glass than his former Blackhawks tickets in the top level.
Before he sings and escorts Hugel onto the ice, Messmer said he plans to have a brief conversation to say "Good to see you, and good to be seen because if it wasn't for you ... I probably wouldn't be here."
And then, as his voice carries through the arena, Messmer hopes players and fans are watching — and appreciating — the man standing next to him.
"Henry is one of the good guys," Messmer said. "We need to turn the spotlight on him once in a while and give him a round of applause."
The Wolves' special first responders uniforms will be auctioned, and proceeds will be donated to the 100 Club of Chicago, the 5-11 Club, and Chicago Wolves Charities. For more information, click here.