George Boyd was just 15 when he heard on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been attacked in 1941.
President Franklin Roosevelt spoke to the country, and the teenager listened from home in Leonia, New Jersey. Although he said he was too young to fully understand the president’s words, he knew one thing: He was going to war.
What he didn’t know yet was that he’d become a part of the Tuskegee Airmen, black military aviators who were pioneers in the eventual integration of the armed services.
When he turned 18, he shipped off to Fort Dix in New Jersey. It was the beginning of a long career in the military — and the beginning of a lifetime dedicated to service and community.
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Major Boyd died June 21 at the Catholic Care Center in Bel Aire at 91. His family said he lived a long life of discipline and determination stemming from his upbringing and his experience in the military.
A memorial service is planned for 10 a.m. Saturday at the McConnell Air Force Base Chapel. He will be entombed at Arlington National Cemetery early next year.
After Major Boyd enlisted in the Army in 1944, he completed basic training at Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi. He was accepted into flight school at Tuskegee, Alabama, but didn’t perform well in training. Rather than give up, he took the experience as a catalyst to pursue other ways he could support the pilots in the air.
After his service in the Tuskegee Airmen unit, Major Boyd would serve in various capacities in the military, including as radar intercept observer during the Korean War as part of the 318th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, the first operational U.S. Air Force Squadron based in Greenland and just 900 miles from the North Pole.
Success after military life
After Major Boyd retired while stationed at McConnell Air Force Base, the Boyds decided to stay in Wichita. Over the years, he held many positions, including working as a weapons system analyst for Boeing and as a 10-year director of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s aviation division. He was also a manager of administration for Jack P. Deboer Associates and director of the clinic at Wesley Hospital.
He was instrumental in creating the legislation that created the Kansas Department of Civil Air Patrol. He was appointed its director in 1996 by Gov. Bill Graves, and he was named commander of the Kansas Wing of Civil Air Patrol in 2000. Major Boyd was also president of his own company, Boyd Systems Development Inc. in Wichita.
In 2006, Major Boyd delivered the keynote speech at Tuskegee University’s 125th anniversary convocation. He and 72 of his fellow Tuskegee airmen were given honorary doctorates for their World War II service.
Major Boyd was awarded not one but two collective Congressional Gold Medals. His first was in 2007, when he joined 300 other Tuskegee Airmen in Washington to collectively receive the medal on behalf of all of the Tuskegee Airmen for the unit’s record — both in the air and in their fight against prejudice in the military.
“Most of us are glad that we lived long enough to get the recognition,” he said in an Eagle story at the time. “It’s probably the highlight of a career.”
His second Congressional Gold Medal came in 2014, when he was and other WWII Civil Air Patrol participants were awarded the medal.
“He was the most proud of those two medals,” his wife Mattie Boyd said. “That was the height of everything.”
An education advocate
Major Boyd especially loved learning, and he was a lifelong advocate of education. In addition to his military education, he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Park College in Missouri, a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Oklahoma, and a doctorate in public administration from LaSalle University in Louisiana.
Even at age 83, he learned to tap dance, simply because he had always wanted to learn how, Mattie Boyd said. The couple was married 52 years.
““He was fascinated with young people and what they were thinking,” Mattie Boyd said. “He enjoyed youngsters.”
According to his family, Major Boyd helped coordinate a trip to Iraq in 2009 with three other Tuskegee Airmen and spoke to 6,000 U.S. servicemen and civilians about the importance of education both in and outside of the military. He stressed the opportunities available in America, and he frequently cited his own life as evidence of that.
In Wichita, Major Boyd loved to speak with anyone who would spare a moment to hear him talk about his experiences as a Tuskegee Airman and as a member of the Civil Air Patrol. He was a regular in Wichita high school classrooms. His daughter Gerrie Boyd-Burns said people were always fascinated when they found out her dad was a Tuskegee Airman.
“I think he was pretty proud of it, and he wanted young people to know that part of history,” Gerrie Boyd-Burns said. ”For the most part, history books have a single paragraph on the Tuskegee Airmen, if that much. He was pretty proud of it and happy to spread the legend.”
When he spoke about his experiences, Major Boyd wanted to make sure people understood the impact that being a part of the Tuskegee Airmen had on him. In New Jersey, he had attended integrated schools, but Alabama was still segregated when he joined the unit.
“It was certainly eye-opening for him, coming from Leonia, New Jersey, coming to Tuskegee, Alabama,” Mattie Boyd said. “It was a little bit different — the racial status — in Alabama compared to New Jersey. It was a learning experience for him too, and broadened his outlook across the board.”
Major Boyd is survived by his wife Mattie and daughter Gerrie Boyd-Burns, as well as his three grandchildren Larnie, Brian and Alitta Boyd. He is preceded in death by his son Allen Boyd.