Walter Blessey IV distinguished himself in so many ways — as a student, an athlete, a patriot, an attorney, a businessman and a survivor — yet one of his favorite stories was how his band was more popular than Elvis during the 1950s in Biloxi.
Blessey, 78, died on Sunday after a battle with cancer. Even when chemotherapy took his salt and pepper hair, he joked about how people might not recognize him without it.
“He was just such a happy person with a wonderful, infectious laugh,” said former U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor.
“It’s hard to imagine life in Biloxi without Walter,” said Mayor Andrew “FoFo” Gilich.
His funeral will be Friday, with calling hours from 10 a.m. until the noon Mass at Church of the Nativity in downtown Biloxi. Internment will be in Biloxi National Cemetery at 1:30 p.m.
In recent years he and his wife, Katherine, operated Chateau Blessey Bed & Breakfast on U.S. 90, in sight of the Biloxi Lighthouse, and throughout their marriage they opened their home to raise funds for a variety of charities and causes. Their B&B received the highest rating on Trip Advisor with 94 percent excellent ratings and comments like, “Walter and Katherine are wonderful souls. If you’re looking for privacy you’ve got it. If you want company you’ve got it. If you want suggestions as to what to do/where to go you’ve got it. True southern hospitality.”
He was Biloxi
“He was a great, great brother,” said former Mayor Gerald Blessey. They and their sister, Tamalane, grew up in the “Possum Neck” area of East Biloxi. Walter was the oldest and was always looking out for him and their baby sister, Gerald said. They spent their time hunting, fishing and picking oysters with their dad out on Deer Island.
“There were so many things I learned from Walter,” Gerald said.
Walter was a state champion in the mile in high school, setting a record at the South State Meet, and in college helped set a school record in the mile relay, achievements that in 2016 saw him inducted into the Biloxi Sports Hall of Fame.
“He was the first in our family to go to college,” Gerald said, winning a track scholarship to University of Mississippi and joining the Army ROTC. He earned his accounting degree from Ole Miss, then finished law school there a semester early, in January 1964. Instead of collecting his diploma and going into practice, he went to serve in the Army in West Germany and then Vietnam. He was honorably discharged as a captain in 1966, but didn’t walk across the Ole Miss stage to get his diploma until 48 years later in May 2012.
It was ironic that the Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam aired Sunday, hours after Blessey died. His unit was among the first to be sent to Vietnam and Gerald Blessey said, “He was exposed to Agent Orange there.”
He remained a patriot. In 2004 the Blesseys invited 30 sailors about to be deployed to the Middle East to their home for an unforgettable Thanksgiving dinner of smoked turkey and prime rib. In 2015 they hosted the 50th reunion of officers of the U.S. Army’s 41st Civil Affairs Company, who served with him in Vietnam.
Serving the community
His service didn’t end in Vietnam but continued his entire life. He was president of the Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum and was appointed to the Coliseum Commission in 2002. He became president when Mitch Salloum died earlier this year. Together they had 43 years on the commission.
“That’s a lot of history and a lot of memories,” said Matt McDonnell, executive director. Blessey cared about the community image of the Mississippi Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, he said. “He made sure we followed the law and our math was sound,” he said. He also dabbled in different businesses, McDonnell said, had “a ton of personality” and was a great storyteller and a chef.
“He was a gourmet chef. There’s no other way to describe him,” said Taylor. The Blesseys hosted a number of fundraisers for his campaigns, Taylor said, and he recalls Blessey as part of the Biloxi Bacon Brigade with Frankie Duggan, cooking feasts for community events.
To Gilich and many kids growing up in the 1950s, Blessey was a musical inspiration.
“We didn’t have a lot of money but our family loved music,” Gerald Blessey said. For a boy to take piano lessons in those days, especially in rough East Biloxi, wasn’t very macho. But he said Walter loved the piano and made it look good. He also played the trumpet and bass fiddle and joined Johnnie Elmer And The Rockets, a mix of band members from Gulfport and Biloxi.
Later both Blesseys were members of the Rockin’ Rebels.
“They were a good group,” Gilich said. “They did play for more folks than Elvis did at the Slovonian Lodge,” he confirms.
The Blesseys bought their house on Beach Boulevard in 1987. They spent 15 years remodeling it before Hurricane Katrina, then four years renovating it and turning it into a B&B after Katrina flooded it with two feet of water and a tornado destroyed part of the home.
“Nearly everyone told him that it would make more sense to let the bulldozers haul away the pile of debris and just rebuild,” said Vincent Creel, Biloxi public affairs director. “Walter was steadfast, though, and refused to consider that option. From Day 1, he knew the importance of restoring as many historic properties as we could along our front beach.”
The New York Times published Blessey’s story a few days after Katrina, Creel said, under the headline “In Mississippi, History is now a Salvage Job.”
He was a Renaissance man, his brother said, with many talents he shared with the community.
“He was all about preserving our sense of place, the things that made us different from any other place in the world,” Creel said.
He was a bigger draw in Biloxi than Elvis.