Image: Tushegee Airmen
Elaine Thompson  /  AP
George Hickman holds a photo of himself in the cockpit of an AT6 trainer plane in then-Tuskegee Army Air Field on Friday. The 84-year-old Hickman is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first black military pilots and air maintenance personnel who fought in World War II.
updated 1/16/2009 5:36:35 PM ET 2009-01-16T22:36:35

Barack Obama has said he's standing on the shoulders of George Hickman and his trailblazing colleagues.

Now Hickman and friends will join Obama as he becomes president Tuesday.

The 84-year-old Hickman is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, the country's first black military pilots and ground crew, who fought in World War II. They returned home to discrimination, exclusion from victory parades — and, as Hickman recalls, the humiliation of being pushed off sidewalks in the South and spit at while in uniform.

More than 60 years later, Hickman and many of the approximately 330 living Tuskegee Airmen are proudly accepting Obama's invitation to attend next week's inauguration.

Hickman never thought he'd see the first black president of the United States.

"I didn't dream that far," the grandson of slaves said.

He still shakes his head when he recalls memories of segregated America: ghastly photos of the slaying of teenager Emmett Till; visiting Selma, Ala., before Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights movement there.

Hickman and his Tuskegee brethren were last in Washington, D.C., in 2007 under the Capitol's rotunda to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor Congress can give.

"My career in public service was made possible by the path heroes like the Tuskegee Airmen trail-blazed," Obama said then in a statement.

Hickman will fly back across the country Monday to join the throngs at the inauguration. He will be in his Tuskegee Airmen uniform — navy blue coat adorned with medals over gray paints — watching from just below the podium with former members of Congress, other VIPs and his grandson, Ryan Melonson.

The 22-year-old senior at Howard University will get the second of George's two tickets. Obama's inauguration staff has set aside two tickets for each airman who volunteered to serve in a segregated program from 1942-46 at an Army Air Corps airfield in Tuskegee, Ala.

Hickman will be staying in the house his grandson shares near Howard's campus in Washington. They will wake up Tuesday before dawn and go to Bolling Air Force Base, across the Potomac River from Reagan National Airport for a 7 a.m. breakfast. Then they will board buses that will take the Tuskegee Airmen and their guests to the immediate vicinity of the inauguration stage at the Capitol.

Hickman hopes to meet Obama at the breakfast, though he admits he doesn't know what the new president-elect's agenda will allow that day.

"And the reason I hope so is his words were so strong about understanding he is riding on the shoulders of the Tuskegee Airmen, who had to fight prejudice and hatred, and that he wouldn't be here without them," Hickman said.

He was speaking Thursday while at his midweek job as host at the University of Washington's football legends center next to Husky Stadium. He was proudly wearing a gold Huskies coaches shirt with a purple "W" over his left breast. On his left wrist, as always, was a 1993 Rose Bowl watch given to him by the university.

'Mistreated'
Hickman's father had a third-grade education, but he encouraged his son and George's older sister to learn how things worked. He specifically helped George pursue an interest in aviation that began as a curious 6-year-old looking into the sky above the west end of St. Louis, then evolved into buying model airplanes for 10 cents each at the neighborhood Woolworth's.

After qualifying for the new program at Tuskegee, he went through it twice. He was initially eliminated from pilot training in 1943. As a cadet captain, he called out white superior officers for the mistreatment of a fellow black cadet and was effectively blocked from flying.

"I felt like I had really been mistreated," he said.

Undeterred, he graduated from the program as a crewman and served in Europe as a flight mechanic during the war. He moved to Seattle in 1955 to work for Boeing and spent 29 years with the aeronautical giant. Hickman was ultimately in charge of accounting for $185 million in Boeing training equipment. He tallied invoices and purchase orders by hand.

"You know when I got my first computer? Two days before I retired," he said, chuckling.

That was in 1984. He and his wife, Doris, have lived in the neighborhood adjoining Washington's campus ever since. He is on the game-day staff for the NFL's Seahawks and is an usher at the Huskies' football and basketball games.

With his warm, genuine manner, he is perhaps the most beloved person on the UW campus, instant sun for its many rainy days.

How beloved?
When Washington's athletic director, Scott Woodward, heard Hickman was invited to the inauguration he had the same concern as that of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. — that its invited members may not be able to go because of soaring costs for travel and the limited accommodations around Washington during the week of the event.

So Woodward and Liz McFarland, Washington's assistant AD for internal relations, led a word-of-mouth fundraising drive. McFarland handed out a few fliers she printed at a nearby copy store. Coaches, administrators, Hickman's fellow ushers and friends of friends off campus, most giving $5 of $10 each, quickly raised over $2,150 for his three-day trip.

"They passed the hat for me," Hickman whispered over his shoulder while he conducted a tour of the football center this week. "It's overwhelming."

After 90 minutes of continual exchanges of "Hey, George!" and "How are you? Great to see you! God bless!" from people exiting the athletic building, Woodward walked out.

"I want to shake your hand," Hickman said, rising from his chair to firmly grasp the AD's hand and arm. "I'm happy for myself but overwhelmed with the generosity."

"Well," Woodward replied, "you are more than worthy."

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