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Historic figures impact students' future

By Greg Gelpi

Legends stepped from history books to urge students to take possession of their future.

Members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black military pilots, spoke to students at Adamson Middle School Tuesday.

"When I was little, they were my heroes," Kelley Thomas, an Adamson eighth-grader, said. "They fought against segregation to get into airplanes, then they fought to get into the war."

The Tuskegee Airmen, a military "experiment," gave black men their first opportunity to fly planes in the military during World War II. Not only did they fly, they flew more than 15,500 sorties in Europe. The Airmen mainly escorted bombers, and never lost a bomber during their 1,578 missions.

Thomas said hearing the men speak of their accomplishments made him proud of his heritage. He wants to be a doctor and has put up with peer pressure that suggests doctors are nerdy.

"After hearing them talk about what they went through, I figure I can put up with this peer pressure," he said.

Chief Master Sgt. Donald Summerlin of the Tuskegee Airmen said he was called a "grease monkey" when he started working on airplanes. Summerlin went on to be a safety inspector for the Federal Aviation Administration, wearing a three-piece suit to work.

Summerlin said he killed "thousands" of people during his military service, but that wasn't what he wanted to speak to the students about.

"But I don't want to tell you about killing," he said. "I want to talk to you about living. I want you to be somebody."

Summerlin said that it's important to be among the best at whatever students choose to do with their lives, regardless of what that may be.

"I got paid for what I know," he said. "That is what I want you to do. I can only say so much to you, but believe me it's up to you."

Sheila Tomas-Johnson, a teacher at Adamson, organized the program.

"I've been involved with aviation just about all of my life," Thomas-Johnson, a pilot herself, said.

She became involved with the Tuskegee Airmen while teaching in Mississippi. She developed a student pilot training program, partnering with Columbus Air Force Base, she said. The program drew national attention, and she earned the Christa McAullife Teacher of the Year Award for the program. She hopes to do the same at Adamson.