George Mills Boyd is a teacher of a different sort.
The former Tuskegee Airman makes a habit of visiting with schoolchildren.
“It’s an honor to know that kids are eager to learn, admire and listen to people in leadership roles and that I’m paying back to the kids,” Boyd said during a visit with third-graders at Benton Elementary School on Thursday afternoon. “I’m sharing in the transition from their youth.”
Boyd was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first black airmen in the U.S. Air Force. He is also a colonel in the Civil Air Patrol, a not-for-profit auxiliary of the Air Force. On March 29, President George W. Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal on behalf of the U.S. Congress. It is the highest award available to civilians.
“I saw people at the ceremony I hadn’t seen in over 60 years,” said Boyd, who passed around his replica medal to the awe-struck children. Boyd explained that a solid gold medal was on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
Speaking to children is something that doesn’t faze Boyd, especially with his experience.
“I first talked to a group of schoolchildren in 1950 about my experiences serving with the 318th Fighter Interceptor squadron in Thule, Greenland, as well as being up by the North Pole,” said Boyd, who retired from the Air Force as a major. “I had taken a lot of pictures and I showed them off to everyone. I still use those pictures in talks that I do today.”
Ann Alofs, the third grade teacher who hosted Boyd in her classroom, realizes the importance of having such a historic figure speak to her class.
“It’s relevant for all children,” Alofs said. “Kids can learn about the past and to be inspired by the Airmen’s stories.”
Before Boyd came in, Alofs showed her class several online videos about World War II and the Tuskegee Airmen. She used modern examples to provide a foundation for the talks.
“The movies gave some visual background to the era, with what people were wearing and what the planes looked like,” Alofs said. “Kids brought up images they saw in movies, which provided a base for explaining World War II. I introduced the Tuskegee Airmen and what was happening in America at the time and what they did so they would have more background information on our speaker.”
Boyd tried to impart some wisdom to the third graders, making sure they all understood to finish their education and to stay positive.
“Pay attention to your teachers and do your schoolwork,” Boyd said. “And be the best that you can be. Life isn’t easy, it’s life, so do the best that you can do.”
Boyd has spoken to more than 12,000 people since Feb. 21, 2001, including the 125th Anniversary Convocation of Tuskegee University, where he was the keynote speaker.
Boyd said he also spoke to crowds as large as 950 at Boeing Military Airplane Co. in Wichita, Kan., in 2005, and 500 Missouri National Guard members on Feb. 21 in St. Louis.
Besides speaking at Benton Elementary, Boyd plans to attend the air show at Columbia Regional Airport and an Honored Guests Banquet at Hearnes CenterAover Memorial Day weekend.
“I will be at the air show with other Tuskegee Airmen talking with the public and signing autographs,” Boyd said. “We’ll be riding in the Memorial Day Parade, too.”
Despite the negative overtones of segregation and World War II, Boyd makes sure the children take away a positive message.
“I try to steer away from the violent parts of war, and more, what did we learn from this? I tell them exactly how it is, and that it’s part of their history,” Boyd said. “It’s easy to focus on the wrong, but harder to focus on the positive aspects of lessons learned.”