(Photo by August Jennewein)

Harold Messler (pictured) says he wasn’t destined to go to college, but his introduction to the University of Missouri–St. Louis – a beginning that he calls “a real fluke” – ended up expanding his horizons further than he could have imagined. And it all started with chemistry.

“I was the first person in my family to get a high school diploma, never mind go to college,” says Messler, who grew up above a tavern his parents owned on Cherokee Street in south St. Louis.

He arrived at UMSL in the fall of 1965 because he says a friend wanted company in the car on the way to and from school. Messler, BS chemistry 1970, took an entrance exam and was accepted to the university.

“I kept thinking, ‘I don’t have any money, and I don’t know how to be a college student,’” he says. “Somehow, my mother came up with the $130 or whatever it was for me to come to school that semester.”

Messler says as a kid he always wanted to know how things worked but hated homework. Luckily, he discovered chemistry in high school. He liked it and was good at it. After years of barely passing, he earned his first A, then another and another. Chemistry drove up his GPA enough to keep him from flunking out of high school.

When he got to UMSL, he zeroed in on the sciences and sunk his teeth into college life. He made new friends, joined the fraternity Delta Xi Kappa and got a job in the chemical storeroom working for Jack Coombs, a former pharmaceuticals salesman.

“He was my boss, my mentor,” Messler says. “Jack was a master at chemicals and human beings. If things weren’t going well, he always knew ways to smooth things out.”

Messler says he also has fond memories of Robert Murray and Alan Berndt, professors of chemistry. He says both men pushed him with research work that went beyond classroom assignments, and it was work that he loved.

“I remember thinking, ‘I could do this for the rest of my life,’” he says.

And he did. Messler became a well-known forensic scientist and chief criminalist for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. After working for the department for 40 years and helping to solve some of the city’s toughest criminal cases, he retired in 2010. He also ran youth programs for the American Chemical Society and Saint Louis Science Center. Today, Messler is an active member of the UMSL Alumni Association, ensuring a place for students like him.

This story was originally published in the spring 2013 issue of UMSL Magazine.

Maureen Zegel

Maureen Zegel