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.