- The Washington Times - Friday, December 23, 2005

The men at the District’s Central Union Mission look to John Schlesser for spiritual lessons of giving and redemption — caring for the 101-year-old World War II veteran like a grandfather as they recover from drug- and alcohol-abuse problems.

Mr. Schlesser, who has been living at the R Street Northwest shelter for more than four years, is a fixture for the men participating in the mission’s yearlong Spiritual Transformation program. They help him get dressed, shave and bathe. And administrators have bent their rule that requires overnighters to leave the shelter during the day to take him under their wing.

“As a ministry we have honored God in treating this man with dignity and respect,” said Ted Ross, the shelter’s senior chaplain who also cares for Mr. Schlesser. “I just believe that we have been watched as we have done that. And even when his season with us ends, I think we’ll be able to know we have done right by him. I think that’s all that can be asked of us.”

Mr. Schlesser enjoys his caregivers’ compassion, and his eyes light up when they bring one of his favorite foods — oatmeal or french fries.

He said the secret to living a long life is simple: “Eat natural foods and don’t drink the Pepsi-Cola.”

The roughly 50 men now inside the shelter describe Mr. Schlesser as witty and engaging. On good days, he might tap a few keys on the piano or share his thoughts on Marxism.

During a recent Christmas feast, he offered some of his favorite life lessons.

“Self-control is the greatest idea in the world,” he said. “You have to learn to control yourself,” and “if you want to know the truth, you always want to read world history.”

Dressed in a leather jacket, a green skull cap and too-big shoes, Mr. Schlesser shuffles through the dining hall. He grins when asked whether he likes the Christmas carols playing in the background.

“Very good,” he said, licking cake frosting off his wrinkled fingers while repeating his favorite line: “It’s very good.”

He mysteriously appeared on the mission’s doorstep in 2001 with $3,600 in cash hidden in his socks and pockets, and has been teaching the men the meaning of giving ever since, said David Treadwell, the shelter’s executive director.

“He’s a blessing to us,” he said. “It’s a great lesson for our guys. It’s like Christ’s love for us. He didn’t get much out of it, but he gave himself for us. You pour yourself into this older guy and you’re going to grow.”

Mr. Ross and the other caregivers have pieced together Mr. Schlesser’s story over the years.

He came to the United States from Latvia in 1928. He drove tanks for the Army, never going overseas, and was honorably discharged in February 1943. Mr. Schlesser turns 102 on April 2.

They think Mr. Schlesser was once a chauffeur in New York, and later worked as a gardener in Florida. Mr. Ross said Mr. Schlesser also was a successful investor, but suspects he was financially abused by someone or another ministry.

Mr. Schlesser has never returned to his home country, though he has a sister in her late 90s still living there.

“When you get old it’s no good to travel much,” he said in a thick accent.

The mission operates as one big family — neither Mr. Ross nor Bryan Lashley knew their grandfathers, so they embrace Mr. Schlesser as a surrogate.

Mr. Lashley, 39, cares for Mr. Schlesser most days and says their relationship reminds him of several Bible passages, including one from the Book of Timothy that says: “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.”

Mr. Lashley concedes he made mistakes in his youth but takes comfort in knowing Mr. Schlesser leads a blessed life.

“I treat him as I would treat my own grandfather, as I would want to be treated,” he said. “This could be me.”

Mr. Ross said Mr. Schlesser has “tugged upon my heart” and brings out his lighter side. “I’ve been enriched in my life through my contact with John,” he said.

Mr. Schlesser, who danced with a 76-year-old woman on his 100th birthday, has enjoyed good health with the exception of some minor colds. He recently had his pacemaker checked and spends most of his time sleeping.

Aaron Anderson, another man in the spiritual program, sums up the experience by saying: “When you can put your own shoes on at 101 years old you are very blessed.”

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