METHUEN — Luther E. McIlwain became fascinated with planes when he saw one flying overhead.
McIlwain who went on to make history as a member of the all-black Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, died Friday at 91.
“He’s going to be a big loss,” said Thomas Hargreaves, Methuen’s director of Veteran’s Services. “He had a lot of knowledge. He did some great things in his life, inspired a lot of people by telling us exactly what it was like during the war.”
Hargreaves and Francisco Urena, former Director of Veteran Services in Lawrence, said he not only fought discrimination and racism serving in a segregated military, but also when he returned from combat as a police officer in New York City for 20 years.
“He was an advocate for veterans and for minorities,” said Urena, now the Boston Commissioner of Veterans Services.
“First of all, Luther was a great friend. He will be dearly missed,” Urena said. “I’m just glad to have walked among his presence.”
McIlwain was a Second Lieutenant with the 477th B-25 Bomber group. The squadron fought in North Africa and Europe. He was also an instructor who trained many of the 1,000 black aviators in the unit.
McIlwain held several key administrative positions in Methuen, including the Office of Equal Opportunity. He was commissioned by governors King, Dukakis and Weld to serve on various boards relating to Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Employment.
Many people knew of his accomplishments with the “The Lonely Eagles,” but others like Christopher Nihan and Cindy Hefmen came to know the funny, kind and gentle side of him.
“He was a godsend in my life,” said Hefmen who knew him for 22 years. “I’m going to miss his smile, his voice and his friendship.”
Nihan of Andover agrees friendship was one of his best qualities.
“He was a great friend, the kind you’d always want to have,” he said. “I learned a lot from Luther. He was a great teacher. You can tell him anything and it was in lock down. He never told me what to do, he always let me figure it out on my own.”
Those who knew McIlwain also remember him for his love of reading, his ability to tell stories and his great sense of humor.
“He had an incredible wealth of information. The stories he would tell kept you at the edge of your seat, whether it was about the army or being a police officer,” Hefmen said.
She recalls how every time she talked with McIlwain, he ended the conversation with, “Love you, madly.”
“I’m still devastated, my heart is broken, but my mind knows he’s not in pain and in a better place,” Hefmen said.
Dottie Avery remembers McIlwain because he was her father’s best friend.
“My family loved Luther. He was a kindhearted man, who never beat around the bush. He never put on airs. Whether rich, poor, young or old, no matter who they were, if they were down on their luck he was there for them,” Avery said.
In 2007, McIlwain and 200 fellow Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush.
Former Methuen Central District City Council Kathleen Corey Rahme attended the ceremony with McIlwain and his sister, Glendora Putnam.
Rahme remembers when the men in walkers and wheelchairs were saluted by the president and they saluted him back.
“That is a moment that will be forever in my mind. It was sad that they had to wait so long, but at least they received the respect of our country, the President and Congress. It was long overdue,” Rahme said.
She said McIlwain was always willing to talk about his experience as a Tuskegee Airmen.
“He wanted children to know who the (Tuskegee) men are. They didn’t realize they had met an icon,” Rahme said.
Glendora Putnam said she beamed with pride looking at her brother among his buddies.
“I’m very proud that the country saw what had happened and did something about it. It was sad that they had to wait so long for the country to recognize what they had done. I’m glad he was alive to be able to participate and meet again with his buddies,” Putnam said.
Born in Blaine, S.C., McIlwain’s family moved to the area when he was 2. He graduated from Searles High in 1939 and attended Allen University in Columbia, S.C. When he tried to join the military, recruiters ridiculed him for wanting to be a pilot, but he eventually enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1943.
After the war, McIlwain was a police officer in New York City until 1968. McIlwain returned to Methuen after retiring from the police department.