BLOOMINGTON — After being shot in the throat in 1994, national anthem singer and Illinois Wesleyan University alumnus Wayne Messmer said he got through “my darkest moments” by grabbing onto four goals.
Those goals were to sing with his wife, Kathleen; to make a success of the Chicago Wolves hockey team, which he had just started organizing before he was shot; to record an album of songs that were meaningful to him, and to sing at Wrigley Field during a World Series.
Sitting in the basement of Presser Hall, where he studied music and once ran past firefighters to rescue musical instruments from a fire, the 1972 graduate recalled his brush with death in 1994 in Chicago with a mixture of awe and humor.
“The fact that I lived through it is pretty incredible,” he said. “It's a miracle.”
To remove the bullet, doctors had to make an incision across his throat. Messmer described it as making him look “like a Pez dispenser.”
Just over six months later, he was performing the national anthem again.
Messmer credited one of his IWU professors, David Knott, for his ability to return to singing because of what he learned about his voice as a student.
“He was straight-forward and honest,” Messmer said of his mentor. “He taught me the fragileness and preciousness of the human voice.”
Messmer has put those lessons to work not only as a singer but also as a speaker, narrator and broadcaster.
He is being honored by IWU as the 2017 Distinguished Alumnus during homecoming activities this week. While on campus, he is speaking to classes, making two public presentations and — of course — singing the national anthem at Saturday's football game. Messmer estimates he has performed it more than 5,000 times.
Asked about recent protests during the national anthem at NFL games, Messmer said, “We all do have our right to freedom of expression.”
He added, “The choice that I make is respect. I often sing with my eyes closed. … To me, it's a personal prayer of thanks and gratitude.”
While at IWU, Messmer was a drum major of the Marching Titans, sang in the Collegiate Choir, played French horn and was a member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the national fraternity for men in music. He was the commencement speaker in 2003.
Messmer talks about the importance of faith, family and friends — and also forgiveness.
Five years after he was shot, he went to prison where the young man who shot him was serving his sentence and “had a very long, eye-to-eye, knee-to-knee talk” in which Messmer forgave him.
“We have a key to the ball and chain we're dragging along,” he said in explaining the value of forgiveness. “That leads to freedom.”