Leetonia grad, star of unbeaten football team, had an illustrious career serving our country
Tony Less, quarterback-kicker of Bears' mythical state title team, soared through the ranks in the U.S. Navy
What might you get if you take a young man – the oldest of nine children – raise him in a country setting, instilling an attitude of appreciation for hard work, an education, the enjoyment of sports and surround him with a community of support? Mix in a little orneriness and safe driving skills (OK, maybe he likes to drive a little fast).
They say everyone has a story. In this case, the story turns out to be one of great success. This is the story of the first person to ever be the commanding officer of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron.
Anthony “Tony” Less was the son of Mildred and Joseph Less, the oldest of nine children. He was born August 31. 1937. He had five brothers and three sisters. He learned the importance of accepting responsibility and hard work at an early age. The family farm consisted of mostly apples and sweet corn, spread over 300 acres. He drove tractor from an early age and of course had many responsibilities as the big brother. His youngest brother was born when Tony was 16 so he had many chores.
Tony attended St. Patrick’s School in Leetonia through the eighth grade. By all accounts, Tony had a bit of a mischievous side, highlighted by an experience he recalls from eighth grade. His teacher, Sister Eileen, who taught seventh and eighth grades as well as serving as principal, heard a loud noise in the room. It was determined Tony was trying to carve on a small BB with a pocket knife he happened to have on him. A piece of the BB shot across the room and struck a piece of metal. Tony was sent to the office and his mother was called to come pick him up. He didn’t recall how many of his younger siblings got to go for an unexpected morning ride.
Trouble didn’t escape Tony on the farm either. One day, he was sliding down a roof, when a protruding nail caught his ankle and opened a large wound (21 stitches as Tony recalls). His dad and a farmhand loaded young Tony in the truck and headed to their family doctor in Greenford. At the intersection of Lisbon-Canfield Road and Route 165, they met Tony’s mom and the doctor on their way to the hospital, as new baby brother, Joe, was ready to make his grand entrance into the world. The doctor told Tony to wait at his office and he would come back and stitch him up, as soon as his Mom gave birth.
High school athletics gave Tony a chance to burn off some energy and be very successful, particularly in football. The Leetonia Bears’ 1954 schedule featured an undefeated squad, a league title, and a mythical state championship. Tony was the quarterback and placekicker and several games came down to Tony engineering a late scoring drive and adding the extra point for a victory. Exciting victories that season included wins over Lisbon, Fitch, and East Palestine by a final of 7-6. Tony’s teammate, Paul Rance, a two-way end recalled these games and the confidence the whole team had in Tony. Rance noted “Tony was a people person, a great leader who brought us together, knew we would win.” More on those attributes later.
Rance also shared one of the Bears’ team bonding activities. Seems Tony had a old 1947 Ford which he was permitted to drive to school because of his farm chores which he needed to get to after practice. On Friday mornings, the ten Catholic football players would “sneak” out of class, jump in the old jalopy, and go to Mass. When they got back to school, Principal Bailey would chide the players to hurry on to class, followed by a wink.
Guard Jim Sevenich recalled another ride the boys took. Someone thought it would be a good idea to take a ride to Columbiana at lunch time. So, yes, the 10 of them boarded the yellow Ford for a trip to Columbiana. All went well in Columbiana (surprise) but they encountered a minor problem on the way home as Tony tried to take the Valley Golf Course curve, a bit over the suggested speed limit. The rear end (expletive deleted) slid off into the gravel. The car flipped over. All the boys were fine, as they had little room to move. They uprighted the car, piled back in, and returned to LHS, albeit a bit late. This time when Principal Bailey saw Tony, he took his car keys and did not return them until graduation.
It was during his high school years that Tony was introduced to flying. Ed Tesner was a business friend of Tony’s uncle and grandfather, and purchased apples and sweet corn to sell at his market. One day Tesner asked young Tony if he would like to go for a plane ride with him on his small Cessna. Tony recalls he literally jumped into the co-pilot seat. Ironically, they were flying to Tiffin, home of Heidelberg University, where Tony would ultimately attend college. After that experience, Tony would always ask if he could ride with Tesner, when he had an open seat.
Tony’s college career was filled with chemistry, football, basketball, and baseball. Somewhere during his junior or senior year, he was in the administration building at Heidelberg (hopefully not sent to the office again). He encountered several Navy personnel. He asked what they were doing and they answered with a question “Want to fly planes off an aircraft carrier?” Jumping at the chance, again, Tony was asked to go to Naval Air Station Grosse Isle in Michigan for testing and evaluation. In his modest tone, Tony said “I guess I did OK, because they took a chance on me.”
Upon graduation, he entered the Naval Aviation Officer Candidate Program and was commissioned as an ensign in April 1960. He received his Naval Aviation wings in June 1961. Early assignments took him to many parts of the world. One such assignment was off the coast of the Mediterranean. While practicing nighttime bombing runs, his A-7E began experiencing engine problems. Flying about three miles ahead of his ship at about 450 knots, Tony radioed in. Several problems existed. He was carrying 10,000 pounds of fuel for the mission, which would need to be dumped for safety reasons. There were approximately 20 other planes on the ship waiting to take off that would need to be moved to allow Tony’s plane a place to land. Also, nighttime flying was not an easy task. Fuel dump, efficient moving of planes and Tony’s flying skills resulted in him catching the hook the first time and bringing the plane in safely. The “air boss” (tower) and commanding officer both noted that “nobody else they knew could have done that.” That landing was just one of one thousand carrier landings Less made during his career, a milestone captured by a very small percentage of pilots.
Logging so many hours flying virtually guarantee some worrisome moments. Tony was once forced to eject into the Chesapeake Bay. Another time, as a passenger, he was pinned inside a small plane which crash landed in icy waters near Yugoslavia. In addition to helping save other crew and passengers, he rescued 50 bags of mail to servicemen and women. Pretty selfless. He admitted later he was concerned about the real risk of drowning in that situation.
On July 27, 1973, tragedy struck the Blue Angels Flight team. A training accident claimed the lives of three members of the team, who were aboard two of the planes. Aboard the USS Independence stationed off the shore of Vietnam was Tony Less, flying missions with an A-7 squadron. An urgent call came to him from Washington D.C. It was the Naval Aviation Training Command, inquiring if Tony was interested in becoming the first commander of the Blue Angels Flight Demonstration Squadron. Until this point, one of the crew was designated as being the leader. They felt the time had come to designate it a squadron and have a commanding officer in charge. Tony accepted the offer and was on his way to Corpus Christi, Texas for his new post. “It was three or four days and I was there.” He assembled a team made up of several survivors from the accident, as well as new members to replace the victims. The ability to bring his team together shown at an early age, served him well as he commanded the Blue Angels in 1974 and 1975.
The mental and physical demands of being a Blue Angel are legendary. Tony’s brother, Jerry, shared a story which illustrates one such example. After watching Tony and his team perform, Jerry and several other relatives waited to spend some time with the commander. After about two hours of interviews, handshaking and other duties the team does after each show, Tony had a chance to sit down and enjoy a beer with his family. Jerry noted Tony ended up with more of the beer on his clothes than in his mouth. “His hands were still shaking profusely from the tenseness he would have associated with grasping the instruments. And remember that was two hours later.”
Other commands lay ahead for Tony. A particular one during 1982 provided some insight into his leadership qualities. As commanding officer of the USS Ranger off the coast of San Diego, the relative proximity to Leetonia gave Tony the opportunity to invite his brother, Jerry, for a visit aboard the ship while at sea. Jerry, who was in his early 30’s, welcomed the opportunity. He remembers the massive size of the ship and the fact that his big brother was in charge of this $52 million carrier. But, even more importantly, he remembers the accountability that went with such a position. One such incident that highlighted the incredible responsibility involved a young F-14 pilot attempting to land aboard the ship. He had missed the arresting wires three times and awaited Captain Less’ decision on the course of action. The pilot could make one more attempt, and if he missed he would have to fly to shore, a black mark on all involved. Plus his own fuel supply was very low. The other option was to fly to shore without the fourth attempt, an even more egregious act. The captain gave the order for one more try. The captain’s brother asked about the fuel supply. The captain said he would not want to be flying the plane. “What about the fourth try”? asked the brother. “Oh, he’ll make it,” said the captain. The guest asked how he could be so sure. The captain responded “Because he has to.” The pilot landed safely. The attribute of showing confidence in your team and believing they would succeed served him well as he commanded the USS Ranger in 1982-1983.
In 1983, Captain Less had the opportunity to introduce the USS Ranger and his men to the football teams participating in the Holiday Bowl played in San Diego. The host team, Brigham Young University and the visiting team, The Ohio State University, brought their teams and traveling parties to the ship for a tour and lunch. After the tour, the Ohio State University Marching Band ‘TBDBITL’ performed “Script Ohio” with plenty of room to spare. While waiting for lunch, Capt. Less visited with the BYU head coach, LaVell Edwards and the Ohio State head coach , Earle Bruce, who had previously coached at Salem High School. While conversing, Less felt a tug at his sleeve followed by several more. He turned to see his high school coach, Bob McNea, who was now an assistant coach for the Buckeyes. One can only imagine the pride Coach McNea must have had on that afternoon. By the way, Coach Bruce graciously gave up his seat next to Less at the luncheon dais so McNea and Less had some additional time to visit.
Being a people person certainly gave Tony the opportunity to be a great ambassador for the United States Navy during his tenure as commander, during which time he hosted, among others, Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, as well as then Vice-President George H. W. Bush and Mrs. Bush.
Other commands and directorships followed and Admiral Less concluded his active duty by serving for three years as Commander Naval Air Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, an organization that employed more than 60,000 people and had an annual budget of over $5 billion. He managed the largest capital assets at sea on the East Coast (seven aircraft carriers) with 2,000 aircraft. He retired from active duty on May 1, 1994 with 34 years of naval service.
He continued to work in government positions involving military programs until retiring in 2007.
Admiral Less and his bride, Leanne, live today in Clifton, Virginia outside of Washington D.C.