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Military school didn't want him but Air Force did, now he's a Tuskegee ROTC Hall of Famer

Tuskegee University's 2017 ROTC Hall of Fame inductees and representatives pose for a photo.

TUSKEGEE UNIVERSITY

By ROBYN L. KIRSCH | Belleville News-Democrat (Tribune News Service) | Published: December 30, 2017

Growing up in Milledgeville, Georgia, Horace Humphries Jr. would ride his bicycle to watch Georgia Military College cadets as they drilled and dream of the day he could attend.

As he came of age, he thought he had the right resume.

"I was an honors student in high school... And I came from a pretty well-to-do African-American family," Humphries said. "My daddy went two years of college, and my mom was a high school graduate -- and that was a big thing in those days. They owned several businesses in the black community, so I lived pretty good, I gotta admit that."

But it was the South before the Civil Rights Movement. Segregation still reigned. He did not get in.

He instead enrolled at Tuskegee University, the renowned historically black university in Tuskegee, Alabama, established by Booker T. Washington.

He studied for a degree in education, but his dream of military service remained. He joined the Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

He graduated with his bachelor's degree, but took a commission out of Tuskegee University's ROTC advanced program as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. It was May 28, 1964 -- a day he counts among his best.

"It was a momentous achievement in my life," he said.

A career of service

With the Vietnam War raging, he soon found himself in Southeast Asia, working as an intelligence liaison officer.

When he first landed in country at Bien Hoa Air Base, the enemy gave him a welcome he will never forget.

"I got off the airplane, and the first thing, the siren went (off). And I said, 'What's that?'

"And they said, 'Get yourself in this hole.'

"So we had to go down in these bunkers and stuff, and we had about six or seven rockets come in and attack, and that's loud. Scary. It scared the livin' you know what outta me."

Humphries was only in Vietnam for a few months, but it was long enough to have one more close call.

"While in Bien Hoa, I had a situation where I almost got killed. The bomb (storage) exploded -- the bunker where they keep the bombs for the airplanes. That's when my ears got bad. You notice I'm wearing hearing aids; that's what caused it."

Over the next 26 years, his service as an Air Force security police and intelligence officer took Humphries around the globe, as well as all over the U.S.

"I had a great career in the Air Force, and it made me a better person. I love the military," said Humphries, who also went on to earn a master's degree in public administration from Golden Gate University in San Francisco and a management master's from UCLA.

Among his military commendations are the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Service Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Air Force Commendation Medal.

"I had very good jobs, and I was promoted ahead of my contemporaries more than once in my career," said Humphries, who retired on March 1, 1991 as a colonel. "I was lucky enough to work for some wonderful people, like U.S. Air Force retired Maj. Gen. Donald Bennett, who also resides in O'Fallon, too."

'A pillar of integrity'

Humphries and his wife, Joyce, moved to O'Fallon in the 1970s. It is where they raised their two children, Timothy, who now lives in Edwardsville, and Leslie, who resides in Atlanta, Georgia.

Gene McCoskey, of O'Fallon, called Humphries and his wife "pillars of integrity" in the community.

"They're two of the best people I know in O'Fallon," said McCoskey, who serves with Humphries on the city of O'Fallon's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners.

"Horace has served (nearly) 20 years as police commission chairman and has done an outstanding job -- hiring police officers and using his skill set -- and is still serving our community and doing an awesome job," McCoskey said.

A Hall of Famer

It was in the middle of a Fire and Police Commission meeting in October when Humphries got the call from his alma mater. They said he was going to be one of the 19 inductees into this year's Tuskegee University ROTC Hall of Fame.

"It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, just to hold back the tears. That was difficult," Humphries said of receiving word he would be a part of the hall of fame's second induction class. "It was something that you never think it would happen to you, and all of a sudden it is. I was shocked. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event for me."

Established in 2016, the ROTC Hall of Fame recognizes military members who were Tuskegee graduates and former students of the university's ROTC program who have "exemplified the qualities of leadership, integrity, moral courage and self-discipline."

McCoskey said his friend fits the credentials in every way.

"I can't think of anyone more deserving of such a significant honor," McCoskey said.

Humphries ventured back to the Tuskegee in late October for his hall of fame induction ceremony.

"Being a young African-American who grew up in a segregated environment, it was very exciting for that to happen to me," he said.

Charlotte P. Morris, interim school president, gave an address during the ceremony.

"We depend on our armed forces to protect our national and global interests, and we applaud the military careers of this year's honorees and their service to our country," Morris said. "Many of Tuskegee's seasoned veterans have been trailblazers who have paved the way so that many other people of color could hold key positions in our armed forces."

That fact was not lost on Humphries, as his picture and story are now among 86 honorees at the Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Museum in Tuskegee, which is named for the country's first four-star African-American general.

"To be in that building and look on that wall being up there with all these generals and these other past colonels -- some of them dead and all that -- it was hard to explain how you feel," Humphries said.

Perhaps his wife summed it up best.

"We are just so proud of him," she said.

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