SEATTLE (AP) – George Hickman, one of the original Tuskegee airmen and a longtime usher at University of Washington and Seattle Seahawks games, has died at age 88. His wife, Doris, confirmed Monday that he died early Sunday morning in Seattle.
Hickman was one of the country’s first black military pilots and ground crew members who fought in World War II. In 2007, Hickman and other Tuskegee airmen traveled to Washington, D.C., to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that Congress can give. In 2009, he attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration as a special guest.
Hickman was a beloved figure at Seattle sporting events, and could often be seen shaking hands and hugging fans, athletes and reporters. He personalized the often anonymous job of ushering, and most regulars to UW games knew him by first name. Many athletes came to expect hugs, handshakes or pats from him before games.
“Things will be a little different right before we go out on the court not being able to shake the hand of George Hickman,” UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar tweeted Monday.
Romar recalled Hickman at games, doling out handshakes and encouraging words even when the team wasn’t doing well.
“He is a guy that if everyone came forward and said how he touched their lives we would probably fill up that arena,” Romar said, adding: “He helped make history. He helped put African Americans on the map in the military.”
Hickman worked a number of posts, including usher and press box attendant, at Huskies games for several decades. He also served as a press box greeter at Seahawks games. He raised the 12th Man flag before the Seahawks game against the Baltimore Ravens last November.
“He was just a wonderful man,” Doris Hickman said Monday of her husband.
The grandson of slaves, Hickman nurtured an interest in aviation as a curious boy gazing up at the sky above St. Louis.
That passion evolved from buying model airplanes to joining the segregated pilot training program in Tuskegee, Ala., and later to a nearly three-decade long career at Boeing in Seattle.
He served in the Army Air Corps from 1943-45, which trained African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft, and was part of the graduating class of 1944, according to a 2012 Army profile.
He was initially eliminated from pilot training in 1943. As a cadet captain, he was effectively blocked from flying when he called out white superior officers for the mistreatment of a fellow black cadet. “I felt like I had really been mistreated,” he told the AP in 2009. But undeterred, he graduated from the program as a crewman.
“There was nothing better in the world. In that biplane, the guy wires between the wings were like musical instruments,” he told the News Tribune of Tacoma in a 2011 interview.
But he also recalled in a 2009 Associated Press interview the humiliation of being pushed off sidewalks in the South and spit at while in uniform.
In 1955, he met and married his wife in Amarillo, Texas, while volunteering with her mother at a local library, according to an Army profile. Doris Hickman was drawn to her husband’s character, she said in that interview, because “he has always put others first and tried to make the world a better place.”
Hickman moved to Seattle in 1955 to work for Boeing as a B-52 engineering training instructor and executive in the aerospace division, according to the News Tribune. He retired in 1984.
AP Sports writer Tim Booth contributed to this report.