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  • Writer's pictureDavid Crow

My Angels: Rex Kontz and Tough Love

Navajo Code Talkers at Camp Elliot, California
Pvt. Rex Kontz (3rd from left) with four other Navajo code talkers and Tech Sgt. Philip Johnson (far right)

When we lived on the Navajo Indian Reservation in the 1960s, Mr. Rex Kontz was Fort Defiance’s postmaster. He was also my Little League coach, 4-H instructor, and surrogate father. Mrs. Kontz, mother of 10, was the book end of the no-nonsense couple.

Their son Richard was my best friend, and still is. Going to the Kontzes’ house instead of to my own was my goal on most days. Our Little League team often camped out there the night before a game.

At the beginning, I seldom missed an opportunity to throw cherry bombs, firecrackers, and water balloons at my fellow playmates. Sometimes I threw them at the Kontzes’ house, which doubled as the post office, targeting the younger Kontz children, including the girls.

Mr. and Mrs. Kontz quickly put a stop to my pranks—well, most of the time. Mrs. Kontz would politely ask me to have a talk with her. Her words were kind but firm: “David, we have rules in our household, and you are expected to follow them. If you don’t, you won’t be allowed to come to our house. I know you want to be a good boy and do as I say.” Her message (at least at her house) made a big impact on me. She was loving and firm, not angry or mean. I wasn’t used to that.

When Mr. Kontz coached our Little League team, he used it as a chance to explain his philosophy of life. It was simple: honor, integrity, teamwork, honesty, and care for your fellow man. I didn’t know then that he was a World War II code talker, a group of Navajo marines who developed the only unbreakable code of the war and fought in countless bloody battles in the Pacific theatre.

Mr. Kontz rarely spoke about himself and was too modest to brag. He instilled in me a love for baseball and good sportsmanship. As part of 4-H, he taught me how to raise a sheep and sell it for a profit.

But more than that, he taught me how a good man conducts himself. All I had known until then was what my father had taught me: to lie, steal, cheat, and do whatever I pleased—the more destructive I was, the more praise I received.

The Kontzes weren’t perfect, but they loved and protected one another, and for the first time, I understood what a family should be. They extended their love to everyone—Indian, Hispanic, Anglo—your race or religion didn’t matter to them. What mattered was how you conducted yourself. It was a powerful lesson that took a long time to sink in.

As I do with Evelyn Luna, I think of Mr. and Mrs. Kontz every day and thank God they were there when I needed them—three Native Americans who gave love to a misguided boy headed in the wrong direction.


Read more about the Kontzes and the other angels in my life in my award-winning memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie. Find out how they helped me survive growing up with a mentally ill mom and violent father, an ex-con from San Quentin who groomed me to be his partner in crime.

“Cinematically gripping.”—Kirkus Reviews

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