Harold Brown, a 1942 graduate of Minneapolis North High School, had a career plan even before he left town for Army Air basic training.
Brown, 92, returned to North High last month for the first time in 75 years to share his career with about 150 attentive students.
A soft-spoken man who grew up in segregated America, Brown was a decorated World War II fighter pilot with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group, a unit of the “Red Tails” of the Tuskegee Airmen. They destroyed a lot, including the bigoted belief that blacks could not master flight and aerial combat.
They also were the vanguard of the civil rights movement that slowly opened the doors to minorities in education, housing, business and other pursuits.
After 20 years in the Air Force, Col. Brown, a barrier-breaking jet pilot and instructor, earned a doctorate. He oversaw the engineering-technology program at Ohio’s largest public technical college and served as a consultant.
Also a championship amateur golfer, Brown was a guest of President Barack Obama at his first inauguration in 2009.
Brown told the North High students that when he told his black buddies in middle school that he wanted a career as a pilot, they responded that Brown would be lucky to find work washing airplanes.
Brown credits his success partly to his parents, who told their two sons that they would study hard and finish high school and eventually college. They had not finished grade school, before they were put to work in menial jobs.
“I studied science and math all three years at North High,” Brown said. It paid off. He scored highly on the admission tests to be one of the first black air cadets at Tuskegee, Ala. The black pilots trained separately from white pilots.
Brown witnessed discrimination. His career plan was to learn and perform to prove his value.
“Throughout my career I was focused and set goals,” he recalled.
Aspiration, aiming high, self-confidence born of hard work and developing the brain are part of the six principles that Brown utilized from childhood and throughout his career.
They are also the credo of the “Rise Above” traveling exhibit of the Minnesota-based CAF Red Tail Squadron, the nonprofit organization supported by volunteers and business that keep alive the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, including their support crews (www.redtail.org).
The project inspires and proves that even disadvantaged kids can soar above circumstances with vision, focus, work and mentors to be pilots, accountants, carpenters or software engineers.
Brown, who also distributed at North High copies of his recent autobiography, ”Keep Your Airspeed Up,” told the students that he worked as a youth delivering newspapers and prescriptions for a druggist. He was promoted to soda jerk at the North Side drugstore because of his reliability, work ethic and people skills. The boss introduced Brown to golf, a nice benefit.
The military after World War II was desegregated, the first American institution to do so. Brown joins many business leaders, economists and others who declare our diversity an economic strength.
“We’ve made strides upon strides,” Brown said. "We have accomplished so much by the great variety of people we have."
“I always knew that this country was so great that it would change and get better. Oh, there may be pockets of bigotry … But that doesn’t hold us back for long.”
Brown told the students, in response to a question, to be earnest and open-minded. Judge people only by behavior.
Brown recalled that on his 30th combat mission over Germany in early 1945, he had to bail out over Austria, a German ally, after his P-51 Mustang was damaged by shrapnel and anti-aircraft fire from the train Brown had blown up on a low-level strafing run.
An angry mob grabbed Brown when he was brought to a village by a couple of skiers who saw him land. American bombs and bullets also had killed thousands of civilians. The 25-year-old Brown thought he was going to be lynched or beaten to death.
Suddenly, an armed town constable stepped between Brown and the mob. He protected Brown until German soldiers arrived to take him prisoner for the last several weeks of the war.
Brown recalled in his book that in April 1945 he had his most terrifying experience. A train he was on transporting him to a prison camp was strafed by American P-51s. He was sure he would be killed, as shells ricocheted through the car and windows blew out. Suddenly, the train entered a tunnel where it was protected.
Brown’s business every day after that was making the most of his life.