- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 30, 2013

William T. Fauntroy, Jr. loves to reminisce about his flying days when he and his fellow “red tails” became heroes during World War II. But in the midst of it all, he wasn’t thinking of the big picture.

“I never expected I was making history,” Mr. Fauntroy said. “I just wanted to fly.”

One of the original Tuskegee Airmen, Mr. Fauntroy recently visited the Rita Bright Family & Youth Center gym on 14th Street Northwest to share his many stories with the camp’s youths.

Now 87, Mr. Fauntroy said he is blessed to still be alive and well to speak to the younger generations about his life as an airman that almost didn’t happen, for reasons out of his control.

“Everybody was bigger than me. Everybody!” Mr. Fauntroy told more than 100 children gathered in the Bright Center gym. “My nickname was ‘Baby Soldier’ because I was so small. I was 5 foot 4 and a half, and 5 foot 4 was the minimum.”

From “Baby Soldier” to a national treasure, the District native and graduate of Armstrong High School knows not every kid he encounters is going to become a pilot. But that isn’t necessarily the goal for him or the Let’s Go Up to the 21st Century foundation, which introduces children to aviation.

“I’m going to talk as long as I can about this,” Mr. Fauntroy said, “and hope that it inspires one of the kids to say ‘I want to do something with my life.’ You don’t have to be a pilot.”

He explained to his audience that there were 15,000 people involved in the Tuskegee experiment, but fewer than 1,000 of them were pilots. Many others served as engineers, nurses, parachute keepers and mechanics, but the entire team was often referred to as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Mr. Fauntroy sported a Congressional Gold Medal awarded in March 2007 by President George W. Bush to approximately 300 surviving Tuskegee Airmen, just one of the honors to come his way in the decades after the war.

On a lighter note, Mr. Fauntroy looked back fondly on a 2012 screening of the George Lucas film “Red Tails,” which chronicled the airmen’s story, with President Obama and his family. He was not shy when speaking of his favorite part of that memorable day.

“I got hugged by Michelle!” he told his audience. “That was the best part.”

When Mr. Fauntroy and other speakers from the Let’s Go Up foundation were finished, the children of the camp, ranging from ages 6 to 15, took turns flying and landing planes in a flight simulator.

Nelson Evans of Let’s Go Up is mindful of the significance of Mr. Fauntroy’s presence.

“The importance of bringing the original airmen out is because they set the standard,” Mr. Evans said. “They understand working in the community and helping other black people get ahead.

“When you work with them, you get to see what it was like when there was segregation. If you wanted to learn to fly there weren’t a lot places you could go.”

The airmen understood this and continued to hone one another’s skills and pass them down to fellow airmen. This is part of the reason Mr. Fauntroy loves giving back today.

“The kids ask great questions,” Mr. Fauntroy said before being interrupted by a young boy who intruded just to say “hi.”

“And they make me feel good, because I didn’t have anyone to tell me [about flying].”

Camper Tasmeem Ali appreciated the opportunities available to her generation.

“It means a lot to me because when he was young he didn’t have anybody to talk to him,” Tasmeem said. “To push him to his dreams.”

Mr. Fauntroy may never fly another plane, but as long as he can continue to inspire future generations, he’ll continue to carry out his mission.

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