This flag’s for a humble hero
George Hickman, part of the Seahawks’ game-day staff, had no clue why he recently was asked to come to the team’s headquarters, but he was certain it wasn’t because he had done anything wrong.
“I don’t live my life like that,” he said.
No, he doesn’t. He was called in because they wanted to ask him to raise the 12th Man flag before today’s game against Baltimore as part of the ceremonies honoring veterans at CenturyLink Field.
“It’s an outstanding honor and a very shocking surprise,” Hickman said.
There could be no more emotional choice, as the spry 87-year-old Hickman has endeared himself to the franchise just as he has to the staff at the University of Washington. For more than 40 years, he’s worked as usher or press box attendant at Huskies games, and continued in a similar role with the Seahawks the past 10 seasons.
The smiling gentleman with the warm handshake and unwavering positive attitude is an example that you may never realize the heroes that are among you.
Hickman is among the surviving Tuskegee Airmen and shared with them the Congressional Gold Medal for his service. He was a special invitee to the Obama inauguration in January 2009.
Consider him an American success story. His grandmother was the 33rd child of a Tennessee slavemaster. His father fought in a segregated infantry unit in World War I, bringing home three bullet holes in his legs from trench battles against the Germans at places such as Argonne and Chateau-Thierry.
As early as Hickman could remember, his father would take him to the edge of Lambert Field in St. Louis to watch airplanes. The science and mystery of flight entranced him, and the passion that rooted with model planes he bought with paper-boy money grew into a lifelong career.
Now almost 70 years later, he recalls his early flights after enlisting in the segregated pilot training program at Tuskegee, Ala.
“There was nothing better in the world,” he said. “In that biplane, the guy wires between the wings were like musical instruments.”
As he listed the different maneuvers – snap rolls, Chandelles, Immelmanns – he made accompanying sound effects the way little boys do when they run with their arms outstretched.
“It was just such a thrill,” he said. “You put your nose at the end of one of those big, white cumulus clouds and you make a snap roll, and you see that beautiful cloud and that blue sky.”
Hickman still speaks of the joy like the 18-year-old who just discovered he could dance on the edge of the heavens. And his thought at the time: “Oh
I wish my mother and dad could see me now.”
He was so talented, he was promoted to squadron commander of pilot training. But the war ended, and his class was the first from Tuskegee to not be deployed overseas.
After discharge, he graduated from Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and then continued as an instructor at Chanute Field in Rantoul, Ill. But the racial prejudice he continued to see “hurt my heart,” he said.
“When I came to Seattle in 1955, it was altogether different,” he said. Boeing brought him out this way, and he worked the next 29 years as a B-52 engineering training instructor, supervisor and executive in the aerospace division.
Friends and co-workers at UW were so delighted when hearing of Hickman’s invitation to the presidential inauguration, they passed the hat to fund his travel expenses.
“You are always trying to help people in your own way, and that’s why these people are here,” UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar said when Hickman was given the donation. “We all appreciate it, and appreciate who you are and how you are. We know that you have accomplished a lot, and you never put that out there; that’s just not your way.”
Of the historic inauguration, Hickman remembers freezing in his Tuskegee Airman jacket, but also the number of people who “kept coming up and saying, ‘Thank you for your service’
‘Thank you for all you’ve done.’”
Typically, he’s humble when asked of his service.
“I tried to be a person who did my part for my country, to show people what I could do, to be my best to everyone because I truly believe we are all brothers and sisters in this world.”
I’ve known George for many years, and like so many others who do, I feel as if even a short chat with him stands as a highlight of the day.
He has lived through poverty, bigotry and oppression, yet greets everyone with a smile and a warmth that seems to radiate from some vast reservoir of inner goodness.
When he raises the flag for the Seahawks, recognize his as a story of a proud veteran, but even more compellingly, a story of America.
Dave Boling: 253-597-8440 firstname.lastname@example.org