George Clooney, Matt Damon and art treasures stolen by Nazis — sounds like a movie right? It is!
Monuments Men opens Friday and is based on an actual group of unsung heroes from World War II. It turns out, one of those heroes of the art world was a real-life treasure to those who knew him in Hampton Roads.
He was Everett Parker Lesley, Jr. known to his friends as Bill.
Linda McGreevy was a new professor at Old Dominion University where Lesley taught Art History and also had some personal history to tell.
He was one of the Monuments Men – 345 men and women, mostly volunteer art experts, who joined the service during World War II to protect cultural treasures from Nazi destruction.
“It was the American and British troops who came in, those professionals in the art world, who helped to start this process of bringing these things back to where they really belong,” McGreevy says.
The story has been told on smaller scale in films like the Rape of Europa, which McGreevy knows from owning Naro Video in Norfolk.
Starting today, millions will know the story thanks to the latest George Clooney and Matt Damon film.
But very few people know firsthand one of the people who not only witnessed history but helped preserve it.
“He said I had the bust of Nefertiti from the Berlin Museum on my desk for over a year,” McGreevy says.
Lesley also found a train carrying a famous DaVinci and helped return it to Poland.
He was living history for his colleagues at ODU.
“He was very proud of what he had done and here was a woman who could speak to him about it, you know, and actually was surprised and interested and like, ‘Oh Bill, you did that?’” McGreevy says.
“I think the Monuments Men experience was probably the best thing that ever happened to him in his life.”
Bill Lesley died in 1982. For a time, he was the acting director of the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences, which today is the Chrysler Museum.