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Tuskegee airman lived his dreams

George Hickman recalls a storied life

Former Tuskegee Airman George Hickman was a stadium usher for the University of Washington for more than 50 years. Photo credit: Gail Wood

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As George Hickman lowered himself into the cockpit of a single-engine BT 13, he simultaneously realized a childhood dream and became a part of U.S. history.

During the midpoint of World War II, Hickman, the grandson of a slave, flew with the 332nd Fighter Group, which is today known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Hickman was part of the first U.S. military pilot training for black Americans.

"I loved everything about flying," Hickman said. "It's something I always wanted to do."

From 1941 to 1946, of the 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee, 355 were deployed overseas and 84 were killed in combat or in an accident. Hickman, who was born in August 1925, never had an opportunity to serve in missions overseas and spent his 2.5 years in the Army Air Corps in Alabama.

"The class before my class was the last one to go overseas," he said.

In July 1943, at the age of 17, just two months after graduating from high school in St. Louis, Missouri, Hickman started pilot training and began a remarkable lifelong journey with airplanes. In the fall of 2012, Hickman's journey ended when he died at the age 88.

A year before he died, he shared his story with me and gave me a glimpse into his life and how he overcame challenges.

It was a life filled with purpose.

Maybe what's so amazing about his life wasn't so much what he did - like graduate from Bradley and advance to a third-level supervisor for Boeing. Rather, it's who he became - a warm, friendly man not made bitter from the racism he faced.

For instance, while attending pilot training in Alabama, Hickman was spit on while walking in town wearing his uniform. Racial slurs were shouted at him. Later, when he became a captain, lower-ranked white officers would sometimes not salute him.

"Once a man in town hit me on the side of the head with a broom," he said. "I'm glad I took the chip off my shoulder. I didn't let the anger get into my heart."

As a student at Bradley, where just 22 of the 2,500 students enrolled were black, Hickman couldn't live in the dormitory. Rather than hate back, he always tried to live by the Golden Rule.

"I tried to treat people with justice, just how I'd like them to treat me," he said.

Throughout his life, his focus wasn't on what other people thought he could do. It was what he thought he could do. Racism didn't shape his thinking of who he thought he was, and that outlook helped him throughout his life.

In addition to pilot training, Hickman attended aircraft mechanics school. Training as a pilot and a mechanic helped prepare him to be an instructor for Boeing later, when he talked with engineers about how to rebuild and repair damaged planes.

In March 2007, the Tuskegee Airmen were collectively awarded a Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in a ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. The following year, Hickman went to D.C. with other Tuskegee Airmen to watch the inauguration of Barack Obama, the country's first black president.

When he went through pilot's training in Alabama during World War II, Hickman flew a Piper Cub, a PT 19, a BT 17 and a BT 13. To improve on his flying while he trained with the Tuskegee Airmen, he would take a plane up by himself, flying up to 9,300 feet.

"That's as high as she'd go," Hickman recalled. "Then the motor would start to sputter."

Pushing forward on the controls of his airplane, he would then put his single-engine aircraft into a nose dive. As his plane went into a slow spin, cutting through white puffy clouds, Hickman would sometimes think of his parents.

"I'd say, ‘I sure wish my parents could see me now,'" he said. "They'd be proud."

Hickman's father, George Sr., was a WWI Army veteran who fought in four major battles and was wounded several times.

"It's something my father rarely talked about," he said.

But Hickman's war experience was different. It helped change what people thought of black Americans and helped to end racism. Hickman was always ready to share his stories of being a pilot.

Who would have thought that the friendly man ushering sports reporters to their seats at Husky Stadium during a University of Washington football game was part of an important part of U.S. history. Hickman, who lived less than a mile from the stadium and worked for Boeing until he retired in 1984, was an usher at Husky football and basketball games for five decades, and that's how I met him.

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