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Rentmeester celebrates 100 eventful years

By Melinda Anne Roberts
Hobby historian and “Little Wisconsin” author

HOWARD – On Feb. 18, 1919, on the family farm in Preble, on the east side of Green Bay, Lester Francis Rentmeester was born into a large family to parents of Flemish descent.

His father was a schoolteacher and Les remembers his mother as a “beauty,” with curly locks that cascaded past her waist.

On Monday, Feb. 18, 2019, surrounded by a couple dozen cousins, nieces and nephews, Les celebrated his 100th year of a life filled with accomplishment, adventure, faith and love.

Les grew up during the depression. Even so, he said “Life was good,” and “it was fun growing up.”

His father taught all eight grades at Finger Road School and all nine of his children.

Les reported he was “a model student because my dad had an eye on me.”

All nine children went on to earn advanced degrees in a variety of fields; a brother became a Norbertine priest, a sister became a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

He graduated from St. Norbert High School in 1937 and spent the following year playing freshman quarterback for St. Norbert College before heading to UW-Madison.

Les Rentmeester has lived a life fit for the movies. This week he celebrated his 100th birthday. Melinda Anne Roberts Photo

Over the years Les earned several degrees.

His bachelor’s in aeronautical engineering came from the Air Force Institute of Technology.

He attended the Army War College, and graduated with an MBA from George Washington University.

He earned a master’s and doctorate in public administration from NOVA University in Florida.

His academic accomplishments were achieved after he flew B-17 flying fortresses with the Army Air Corps 401st during World War II.

Les tried to enlist to serve as a pilot in World War II, but was turned away for his flat feet.

But the day following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, flat feet and all, Les was called up and six months later was in California for pilot training.

In late 1943 he was leaving New York on the Queen Mary, then a troop ship that moved faster than the U-boats.

The Queen Mary arrived at Royal Air Force Bassingbourn in England in just five days.

“They were happy to see us,” said Les. “They felt very lonely there with the German subs all around them.”

He was initially tasked with 25 bombing missions, but in the end there weren’t enough pilots so he was reassigned to fly 30 missions.

Flying a B-17 had its challenges. The plane was not easy to navigate. It carried 13 50-caliber machine guns and 12 500-pound bombs.

Chances of survival were very low – just one out of 11 pilots returned from a mission.

“I was pretty lucky to live through it. They’d shoot down the guy next to me and miss me,” said Les. “I had a great time, except when they were shooting at me. They’d shoot at me and I’d yell at them ‘Cut that out! You’re ruining my nice plane!’ They wouldn’t care.”

One time after a particularly tough mission Les’s ground crew chief reported 87 holes in his plane.

Les returned from his 30th mission with only three of his four engines – something not all that uncommon.

His secret to surviving those 30 dangerous missions. “I was a pretty good pray-er. My mother was a champion pray-er. She had a direct line with the Big Guy,” Les said.

His wife and sisters were also prayer warriors.

In summary, “Being a pretty good pray-er, be on good terms with God and don’t curse too much. God is your buddy.”

Les and his crew received last rites from a priest just before leaving on a mission.

“I got the last rites quite a few times. If you need any last rites, I’ve got some extra ones,” he said.

Another secret to his success. Les had a singing crew.

“They decided it was a good way to keep everybody happy was to sing,” he said. “We sang our way over Europe towards Germany. Religious songs and polka songs, especially the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ was a favorite.”

Les returned to the States in May 1944, as D-Day was being celebrated around the world.

When the Army Air Corps became the Air Force in 1947, Les stayed on.

While working and studying at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base he met Orville Wright.

“He seemed so old,” said Les. “He was a tall guy. I asked him what was that like to be the first guy up in the air. He said it wasn’t quite that easy.”

Les went to air reconnaissance school in Colorado and became an accomplished photographer. He was involved in the 1960 reconnaissance mission that resulted in Gary Powers being shot down over Soviet Union airspace and captured.

Les worked at the Pentagon for two tours of duty, at a high level of security.

He also worked in the control room at NASA for a time during the Apollo program.

Les earned the rank of colonel and retired in 1972 after 31 years of service.

Les married his high school sweetheart, Jeanne Rioux, on Nov. 20, 1941.

She is a direct descendant of Frenchman Joseph Roy, one of the area’s first white settlers, who established a fur-trading post in the 1770s at what would become Howard.

While teaching graduate courses at NOVA University and the Florida Institute of Technology in the 1980s, Les and Jeanne began an exhaustive journey to compile the history of the Howard community, and the genealogy of the earliest settlers.

In the ensuing years the couple became accomplished historians, published seven books and were instrumental in establishing the still active Howard-Suamico Historical Society.

As Jeanne’s health began to fail, the couple returned to Howard to live in her family home – the Angeline Champeau Rioux Home, established in the early 1800s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and Brown County’s oldest, continuously occupied house.

Jeanne died in October 2010.

And this is where Lester Francis Rentmeester celebrated his 100th birthday, surrounded by family and friends and photos of his life spent with Jeanne.

By a proclamation of the village of Howard, Feb. 18, 2019, was declared Les Rentmeester Day in the village of Howard and Les was publicly recognized “for his contributions to our community and to our country.”

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