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Original Tuskegee airman Walt Richardson dies at age 85

Retired Chief Master Sgt. Walter Richardson, an original member of the World War II-era Tuskegee Airmen, speaks with servicemembers at Duke Field, Fla., July 10, 2010.

When Walt Richardson and his wife, Helen, were blessed with eight children, he worked multiple jobs to support them.

When he was selected to be one of the first black men to integrate the Air Force, he rose above the racism that surrounded him.

“You don’t let these things make you bitter,” he taught his children. “You use them to make you better.”

Richardson was 85 when he died early Saturday morning at his home in Fort Walton Beach. Funeral arrangements are pending.

He was one of the original Tuskegee airmen, a gifted entertainer, a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal and a deacon at St. Mary Catholic Church.

Despite the cancer that had spread through his body, he worked right up to the end of his life, with a March 21 fall at his house triggering a rapid decline.

“He said, ‘Let me go with my boots on,” said Pat Richardson, his second oldest son. “Don’t put me in a home. Let me take it to end.”

And he did, breathing his last at 4:05 a.m., hours after his son, Henri, sang “Wind Beneath My Wings,” to him from California.

“I think all he did was he hung on until he heard everybody’s voice, and he was done,” Pat said. “Henri sang him into where he needed to go.”

His wife called him Walt, friends called him Deacon Richardson, his children called him Dad.

To Pat – his only son to follow him into the military – he was “Chief,” short for Chief Master Sergeant, the rank Richardson achieved in the Air Force.

Born and raised in Pensacola, Richardson joined the Air Force in 1949 and was stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in 1951.

He was one of 1,000 black enlisted men selected to integrate the Air Force. The men were warned that it would be the biggest fight they would face.

Richardson didn’t know he was one of the original Tuskegee airmen until Congressman Jeff Miller’s office found his name on a list a few years back.

“He knew he was something,” says Pat. “He just didn’t know what.”

When Richardson came to Eglin, he and his family were not allowed to attend squadron dinners. In fact, some members of the squadron would give Richardson money to take his wife and children somewhere else.

He was also not allowed to drink out of the water fountain. Instead, he filled up an empty Coke bottle with water when he was thirsty.

Pat remembers going to pick up his dad at work and being handed a Coca-Cola bottle full of water to drink – something Pat didn’t question. As a child, he couldn’t conceive of a world where his lips wouldn’t be allowed to touch a water fountain because he was black.

He didn’t realize it was part of the discrimination his dad faced every day.

The Richardson family stayed close over the decades even as the children grew up and moved to other states.

They had regular family conferences, using Skype and Facetime. They prayed the rosary together on Sunday mornings, using technology to bring them together.

One of Richardson’s most powerful legacies was as a father. He taught his children to pray often and well.

“Let’s say a Hail Mary on that,” he’d say. And his children learned, no matter where they were to do just that.

He taught them how to be good parents by example. He was fun, but took time to listen before guiding them to a decision.

“As a parent, you don’t get a report card,” says his son, Bill. “I made sure he understood he got an A-plus from me.”

After his fall on March 21, his health declined rapidly. In his last days, their small Fort Walton Beach home filled with people who’d been touched by Richardson.

One was a young man with a cast on his leg. He told Helen that he’d gotten in an accident and her husband had stopped to pray with him while they waited for the ambulance.

“He’s such a people person,” Helen says. “They’re attracted to him. They stop and listen. He guides them.”

Every day with her husband was an adventure, she says, one that they’d sit down at night and discuss.

“You can’t solve the problems of the world,” she says.” But we tried.”

Family photos cover the wall of the living room.

But right around the corner, Richardson’s small office is papered in religious art and quotes that he copied and taped on the wall.

A wheelchair he never allowed himself to use is parked in there, along with the walker that allowed him to work until the last days of his life.

Next to his desk is a television and a DVD player, along with multiple copies of his favorite movie, “Pretty Woman.”

He watched it hundreds of times, delighting in the story of a young woman who picks herself up and recognizes that she can be somebody.

Richardson had his own 11th commandment – one familiar to those who knew and loved him best. “Thou Shalt Not Quit,” was the rule he lived by.

And he didn’t.

“He ran a full race,” his son Bill says.

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