Russ Leger, a horseman who rode the Mormon Trail to aid an injured buddy, arrived in Salt Lake City Thursday afternoon to the cheers and praise of a large group gathered at This Is the Place State Park.
Leger was one of several wagon masters on the wagon train that crossed the trail from Omaha to Salt Lake City this summer. After returning to his home at the conclusion of the three-month trek, he turned around almost immediately and traveled the 1,200-mile trail a second time to encourage contributions for and to raise public awareness of the needs of Larry Turbo Wayne Stewart, 25, Milton, Iowa.Stewart, a horseman on the 1997 commemorative trek, suffered a serious head injury Aug. 2 in a freak wagon loading accident in Rock Springs, Wyo., just days after the wagon train reached the Salt Lake Valley.
Stewart still lies unconscious in a Des Moines, Iowa, health care facility. Officials there have not released information on Stewart, but information given Thursday by Leger and Elder Hugh W. Pinnock, LDS Church general authority, seem to lend a ray of hope concerning Stewart's condition.
Elder Pinnock baptized Stewart in a pond at the park at the conclusion of the historic re-enactment in what was a highlight for the LDS members of the train.
Leger arrived at the park Thursday on "Sarge," his 9-year-old quarter horse. The 48-year-old Bellevue, Neb., businessman, who began following trails in 1993, quoted Stewart's father, Wayne, as saying recently that his son had been "wiggling his toes" and giving a "thumbs up" or a "thumbs down" in response to questions.
Leger also said Wayne Stewart told him that Larry had petted his basset hound and even had been "pulling on the dog's chain a little bit."
Elder Pinnock told the crowd that an LDS mission president in Iowa has been asked to "keep track of Larry for us." Despite the man's severe injuries, " . . . he's coming along. It's a . . . miracle, no matter what happens to him," Elder Pinnock said.
In his Western-cut clothing with chaps, spurs, hat and gloves, Leger looked every bit a real cowboy. Welcomers rushed to greet him as he descended a hill east of This is The Place Monument.
He said of Stewart, his close trail friend, "My idea is that God's bigger than any disease, injury, illness, accident or deformity and you just have to believe in it. And everybody's been praying along the trail . . . ," Leger said. He presented Elder Pinnock a leather-covered copy of the Book of Mormon.
Leger, who is not a member of the church, said the book was given to him by a friend when he left Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Aug. 14. He said he was presenting the book to Elder Pinnock, president of the church's North America Central Area, to keep "until Larry is able to come back to Salt Lake to pick it up."
To this, Elder Pinnock promised, to the delight of the crowd, that he would see that Leger receives another copy of the book.
"I have had various people along the trail that helped me sign it. Some I don't even know," said Leger. "I may never meet them again, but they were important to help me get down the trail. And it made me realize that the trail is as alive today as it was when we (traveled it) this summer. And I encourage everyone to take a good, hard look at the trail because it will truly beckon to your spirit . . . ," Leger said.
Leger received the praises of Bob Lowe, wagon master on the Utah segment of the trail; Elder Pinnock and Elder Joe J. Christensen, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy who represented the Executive Committee of the church's Sesquicentennial Committee. They commended Leger for his service during the wagon train and his "second-mile" effort to retravel the trail in behalf of his friend.
Elder Pinnock said, "As all of us feel and observe and so many of us know . . . , Russ Leger is a man of real integrity. We enjoyed being with him a year ago (when Leger was part of a 1996 commemorative trek across Iowa), and we enjoyed being with him this past summer. He was able to peer deeply into what was going on, perhaps more effectively than some . . . he understood the great initial migration that took place 150 years ago . . ."
Industrialist and church leader Jon M. Huntsman, who was accompanied to the gathering by his wife, Karen, and son, Mark, offered a prayer at the gathering. The Huntsmans have become friends with Leger through the trail events.
Leger seemed thrilled with the large, enthusiastic reception he received, saying he felt that the well-wishers, many of whom participated on the wagon train, are his "family."
Elder Pinnock said, "You mean a lot to all of us. As you have just said, you are part of our family."
Hugs began the minute he alighted from his horse. The animal, large and well muscled for its breed, also was praised by Leger, Lowe and others as the means of bringing the rider such a long distance for the second time.
Lowe welcomed children and adults as they presented food, flowers and other gifts to Leger. Several presented musical numbers. Lowe said, "I will never forget my association with this man."
After the program, Karen Huntsman told of the patient way Leger encouraged her handicapped son, Mark, until he began to lose his fear of getting on "Sarge." The Huntsmans spent some time with the wagon train when it was in North Platte, Neb.
"Russ represents what's good and wonderful in this world today. He really does. And Mark kind of judges people by the size of their hearts, and he kind of sized up Russ." When the wagon train entered the valley this summer, Russ saw Mark, jumped off his horse and came running over to see the youth, she said.
Having ridden the trail twice in a year, Leger now plans to take it easy on the return trip. And so will Sarge. He will ride in a horse trailer as Leger retraces the path, stopping here and there to extend thanks to those who have helped. Leger hopes that his next trip to Utah will be with his friend Turbo.
Donations for Turbo sought
The public may contribute to the Larry Turbo Stewart Donation account at any branch of Zions Bank.
Bob Lowe, a wagon master on the Mormon Trail Wagon Train, told a large crowd Thursday at This Is The Place State Park, that they and others may donate to the account, No. 002-65831-8.
Stewart underwent brain surgery at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City after an Aug. 2 accident in Rock Springs, Wyo., and has since been in an Iowa City, Iowa, hospital and is currently in a Des Moines, Iowa, medical facility.
Lowe and others gathered at the park encouraged prayers for Stewart and prayers, cards and letters of support for his family in Milton, Iowa. When asked for their address, Lowe said he could not supply a street address for the family but that he was sure that mail would reach them by writing in care of Larry "Turbo" Wayne Stewart, Milton, Iowa.
Larry Stewart's father's name is Wayne Stewart.