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OPINION

The Tuskegee Airmen got him recognition. But it was family and community that brought the reward.

By COURTLAND MILLOY | The Washington Post | Published: March 31, 2021

Major L. Anderson II, who died March 15 at age 96, received a Congressional Gold Medal for being a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. Well deserved. But in talking with his family, I also learned that he had done some other things that rank right up there with service to one's country.
Service to one's family, for instance. And to one's community. Those things seldom get recognized, but they often have more impact.
After being discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1945, Anderson attended Howard University on the GI Bill. While attending a basketball game, he met a fellow student, Lurlene Booker. They married in June 1948.
"She was the love of his life," recalled Major L. Anderson III, 70, the older of their two sons. His wife had been what is called a "civilian leatherneck," and worked in a secretarial pool for the U.S. Marine Corps and later as a classifications specialist for the National Labor Relations Board.
In 1987, Lurlene died of cancer. She was 60. He was 62.
"She came home from the hospital for hospice care, and he looked after her day and night," the son recalled. "I'd stop by the house to check on them and he'd be kneeling beside her, washing her feet. He doted on her."
After her death, he tried dating but soon gave up. "He said she was the only one he could ever imagine being with, and he never remarried," the son said.
Keith Anderson, 65, the younger of the two sons, recalled his father as being "the personification of what you call a distinguished gentleman. He was confident yet humble. A very dignified man with a great sense of humor."
The older son called him "my special dad." Anderson the father and his namesake son were born on the same day of the same month: March 5.
Anderson's sons knew his official story: Drafted into the Army Air Corps in 1943 during World War II; became an aircraft sheet metal worker; was later assigned to the all-Black 477th Bombardment Group to begin training as a gunner.
"The war was ending before we completed training and we remained stateside," he recalled during an appearance in 2017. "I was discharged in 1945 and that was my military career."
The sons also knew the history of the famed Tuskegee Airmen - and the racist hostility they faced. More than a hundred Black officers were arrested for attempting to enter a Whites-only officers club when the 477th was stationed at Freeman Field in Indiana.
It wasn't until 1995 that the criminal records of the wrongly arrested Black officers were expunged.
They knew their father wasn't among those men charged. He was not with the unit at that time. And even if their father had been among those men, his sons knew he would never have mentioned it - or any other racial incidents in his life. He always chose to focus on positive experiences, they said.
But at a family reunion some years ago, one of Anderson's now-deceased sisters told his sons a story that he'd never mentioned, one that showed his dedication to his family and to justice. She recalled riding a bus with her brother in their hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., when the two were teenagers - and how he had refused to give his seat to a White woman who asked him to move.
"My father had always been assertive and would speak his mind, but he had never been the kind of guy my aunt was describing," the older son said. Or so he thought.
"She talked about White guys surrounding them ready to force him out of the seat and him just sitting there - standing his ground, so to speak - ready to throw down and fight. And before anybody called the police, my aunt persuaded him to get up and walk away because she was very afraid that something bad was going to happen to him."
The father had never told the sons about facing down those men.
"He just kept moving forward," his older son said. "He believed that the key to success was education and hard work. He wanted to keep the focus on that."
And that's what the father did. He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration from Federal City College in 1973. He worked constantly, always holding at least two jobs - postal employee, university security guard, life insurance agent, school bus driver, motor coach chauffeur.
"He'd say don't rest on your laurels," his older son said. "He'd say there's always somebody out there working while you're loafing. "
His father became active in the Third Baptist Church and became president of the PTA at his children's schools. Honorably discharged with a World War II Victory Medal, wise beyond his years, he was the model of discipline, courage and strength personified.
There are no medals of honor for accomplishing that mission, and Major L. Anderson II didn't need one.
He served his country when he was called to do so because it was the right thing to do. He served his community and his church because it was the right thing to do. And he made sure his wife and his sons had everything they needed - and much of what they wanted - because he knew it was what he was called to do.
Keith Anderson recalled a Christmas holiday some 20 years ago when his father told him and his brother how blessed he was to have them. Now that their father is no longer with them, they're realizing how blessed they were to have him.
We should realize how blessed we were to have had Major L. Anderson II for his distinguished achievements and contributions to his family, his community and the nation.
Courtland Milloy is a local columnist for The Washington Post, where he has worked since 1975.