Vernon Hopson was a proud Tuskegee Airman

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 3, 2009 - 9:07 PM

His military service opened the door for him to become one of the first black air traffic controllers in the nation. He had a spirit that said, "I can do that," his wife said.

As a young black growing up during the Great Depression in La Grange, Texas, Vernon Hopson spent many days working in the fields and watching as airplanes buzzed the crops. He told himself that one day he was going to fly.

He read an newspaper article about the Tuskegee Airmen, then got a word of encouragement from his high school principal, who had been kicked out of flight training school just two months before his graduation because he was black. He told Hopson to pursue his dream.

That was all Hopson needed to spur him to enlist in the Army Air Forces and join the group of black pilots who flew with distinction during World War II.

"That word was very important and gave him assurance that somebody was behind him," said Hopson's wife, Norma, of Minneapolis. "Vernon was one with the spirit that said, 'I can do that.'"

For his service, he was given a Congressional Gold Medal by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Hopson died of esophageal cancer Aug. 28 at his home in Minneapolis. He was 84.

He passed a battery of arduous tests to become one of the famed airmen. He never saw combat action -- his unit was called back on the day it was to be deployed -- but he did fly P-40 Warhawks and P-47 Thunderbolts "and was ready to go," said Ray Spann, friend and former control tower manager at St. Paul's Holman Field.

Hopson's military service opened the door for him to become one of the first black air traffic controllers in the nation, his wife said. For more than 20 years, he manned towers at airports in places such as Oklahoma; Aurora, Ill.; Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, and St. Paul's Holman Field, where he met Spann. He was forced to retire in 1987 when he started taking medication for high blood pressure, Norma said.

"He was an excellent employee," said Spann, who worked with Hopson for about 15 years. "He had a calming influence and didn't pop under stress. When there was a traffic incident to be taken care of, he took care of it. He was a pillar of strength for those he worked with."

Hopson was extremely proud of being a Tuskegee Airman, his wife said, and in later years recounted his experiences of being a black pilot during talks he gave at elementary and high schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

He was a talented woodworker who in his off time refinished furniture for friends and family members. He also enjoyed reading books, especially accounts of World War II, history, airplanes and murder mysteries, Norma said. And he was a benevolent guy who helped buy two vans for his church, Macedonia Baptist Church, when it was formed in 1981, she said.

In addition to his wife, Norma, Hopson is survived by two stepdaughters, Angela Davis and Joyce Davis, both of Minneapolis; a stepson, Sylvanus Davis of Bloomington; a brother, Jesse Hopson of Aurora, Ill., four grandchildren and one great-grandchild. He was preceded in death by his first wife, Gertie Hopson.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Macedonia Baptist Church, 3801 1st Av. S., Minneapolis.

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