One of the last original Tuskegee Airmen in the Puget Sound region, William Booker, 90, of Kirkland, died Nov. 30.
Although Mr. Booker faced discrimination as a flight engineer and navigator for the all-black 477th Bombardment Group based at Godman Field, Ky., his family says he never let that experience limit what he became after World War II ended.
In fact, what Mr. Booker could master after the war, according to his wife, Dolores Booker, seemed limitless. Once he graduated from the University of Denver, he became an electrical engineer, a patent-granted inventor and a father who hunted, fished, raised Thoroughbred racehorses, built a boat, taught aviation workshops at schools, coached golf and had a 34-year career at Boeing. An aircraft electrical component he invented received a patent in 1987.
Joining the Tuskegee Airmen’s local chapter in the 1980s and eventually becoming a 10-year president of it allowed him to turn his wartime experience into something that helped future generations overcome racial barriers to success, Dolores Booker said. He traveled across the Pacific Northwest to inspire youth to take advantage of what opportunities lay before them, and he raised thousands of dollars for scholarships every year.
“He really took on selling T-shirts and sweatshirts to support the scholarship fund,” Dolores Booker said. “When he came back from a Boston convention with $5,000 for the scholarship fund, he was so excited. Raising money for that became a pretty big part of our lives.”
Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying for the U.S. military. Civil-rights organizations and the black press exerted pressure that resulted in the formation of an all African-American pursuit squadron based in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941. Those involved became known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
But it wasn’t until black veterans started identifying nationally as Tuskegee Airmen in the 1970s, and the opportunity to help others through the organization came up, that Mr. Booker talked much about himself as a black veteran.
His stepdaughter, Leslyn Jones-Petitt, says she didn’t know about his wartime past until she was in high school. The war ended before Mr. Booker’s scheduled deployment to Japan.
“I was amazed. I really hadn’t heard of the Tuskegee story,” said Jones-Petitt, 54. “I knew he was in the aviation industry, that he was an inventor, but had no idea what he was trained to do and how he was treated.”
Dolores Booker said her husband was well-known in the Montlake neighborhood in Seattle where the couple raised their children, and later in Kirkland’s Bridle Trails neighborhood as someone neighbors could call on for help. Their Kirkland neighbors knew Mr. Booker would help in the middle of the night if one of their horses fell sick.
Parkinson’s disease started sapping Mr. Booker’s health and energy about five years ago, but Dolores Booker said her husband enjoyed a full life.
“The first time he ever spent a night in a hospital, he was 80,” she said.
“He was very active; you see all the things he’s done. He did not hesitate to do the things he enjoyed, and we agreed to never fence each other in.”
In addition to his wife, Mr. Booker is survived by children Cliff Mitchell, of Los Angeles, Larry Booker of Seattle, Paula Hatcher, of Kennewick, and Leslyn Jones-Petitt, of Seattle; and seven grandchildren.