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September 24, 2007

Tuskegee Airman flies on faith, dedication


William "Bill" McDonald is a rare individual. He's a quiet gentleman who commands respect not because of his title or his accomplishments, but because of what he has experienced and how he treats others.

"When Bill speaks, people listen," said Leonard H. Bolick, bishop, North Carolina Synod.

At the age of 83, McDonald — a Tuskegee Airman — has attained celebrity status in Durham, N.C., his hometown.

McDonald was lauded by city, state and federal legislators for his service in the Tuskegee Airmen, the group of nearly 1,000 African Americans who earned their wings in an all-black fighter pilot unit of the Army during World War II.

"It's like he's a movie star — everybody wants to take him out," said McDonald's grandson, Wilbert Fletcher III.

McDonald exemplifies the motto of the Tuskegee Airmen, "All blood runs red." Throughout his life he has distinguished himself by his dedication to excellence.

On March 29 McDonald and 300 other surviving airmen were presented with the U.S. Congress' highest civilian honor — the Congressional Gold Medal. "I thought it was wonderful that we were finally being recognized," McDonald said.

On the Sunday after his return to Durham from Washington, D.C., members of his congregation, the Lutheran Church of the Abiding Savior, celebrated with McDonald. "People cried, had cake, got to see the medal [and] celebrate with him," said McDonald's pastor, Gordon Myers.

The congregation praised McDonald's achievements in a resolution that was adopted by standing ovation in June at the 2007 assembly of the North Carolina Synod.

But McDonald doesn't count the gold medal and the recognition that came with it as his proudest moment. "Just being able to survive, to make it, and to keep my faith — those are the things I'm most proud of," said McDonald.

A native of Detroit with a fascination for figuring out how things work, McDonald loved aviation from a young age. But, as an African American boy growing up in the 1930s, "I never dreamed I'd have the opportunity to learn to fly," he said.

He recounts being the sole African American student in engineering classes at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, in the 1940s. He pulled all-nighters to complete group projects by himself. "They didn't have anything to do with me," he said of his white classmates. In the end, he said, it helped him learn all aspects of a complex problem, not just one part.

When a black upperclassman at the School of Engineering told him about the Tuskegee Airmen, McDonald jumped at the chance and enlisted in 1944.

He was sent to Army Air Corps basic training at Keesler Field in Biloxi, Miss. It was his first trip to the segregated South as an adult, and it was "kind of a shock," he said. "We knew [in Michigan] that [segregation] existed, but reading about it and living it are two different things," he said. "You had to readjust your life and everything to those social conditions."

After basic training, which lasted six months "but seemed like an eternity," McDonald transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field, Tuskegee, Ala., for primary, basic and advanced flight training on AT-6 and Stearman PT-17 aircraft.

"It was hard work. They kept us going. But it was fun. I was constantly learning," said McDonald.

His first solo flight was a highlight of training. "The biggest thrill is when you do it by yourself," because he was free of the "coaxing and hollering" of the flight instructor.

Although he did not complete the flight training course, McDonald is considered a "documented original Tuskegee Airman," according to Ron Brewington, spokesman for Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

The war ended before McDonald was deployed overseas. His prospects as a pilot after the war were slim. "If we desired to stay in aviation, there was good evidence the Air Force didn't want us and the private sector wouldn't hire us," said McDonald.

So McDonald returned to the University of Michigan, earning his engineering degree in 1950. He went on to work as an electrical engineer at aerospace companies and later as director of the physical plant for North Carolina Central University. He retired in 1994.

He has been a strong community leader in Durham since 1973, serving as a senior elder at his church and as a founding member of Phoenix House, a community effort to buy and renovate housing for homeless people in Durham.

McDonald hasn't waited for recognition from others to validate his life choices. He has plowed ahead. "I just dealt with it," he said. Each step of the way, he said, he followed his heart. "I just loved what I was doing."

And, said his pastor, McDonald does everything with a "sweetness and a gentleness" that motivates and inspires others.

How did he get to be this way? McDonald credits a boyhood mentor, Robert Ingram, and other members of the Lutheran church in Detroit. "The church meant so much to me as I grew older," he said. "When I went off to college, I was grounded well in faith, and I had the strength to combat the obstacles I had to face," said McDonald.

In turn McDonald has been a mentor to many young people at Lutheran Church of the Abiding Savior, according to his pastor. "He's one of those people that, when you have a relationship with him, you can't help but grow spiritually," said Myers.

"His spirit is infectious," continued Myers. "He has such integrity in living his life in accordance with what he believes. He makes Jesus — he makes faith — accessible to other people and he does it in a gentle way."

Fletcher said his grandfather was "a major influence" in his decision to pursue a call to ministry. Fletcher, 27, just completed a year of seminary at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C., on a full scholarship from the ELCA Fund for Leaders in Mission.

Fletcher has been inspired by his grandfather's humility, but also his willingness to take risks. "He always wanted to take full advantage of that opportunity [to fly]." Fletcher added that the love of flying has not faded with age. "Until four years ago, this man was still sneaking out to the airfield and flying," he said.

McDonald clarified that it was a one-time trip with a young man in the congregation who was getting his pilot's license. The "young fellow" was learning on a Stearman aircraft, similar to what the Tuskegee Airmen had used in training. "He offered me a ride, and I flew a little bit," admitted McDonald, adding, "It gets in your blood."

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