March 6, 2005
By MARYELLEN FILLO, Courant Staff Writer
Lemuel Rodney Custis, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen
and Hartford's first black police officer, was remembered at
his funeral Saturday as a combat hero and a humble man who
advanced the integration of the U.S. armed forces.
Custis, 89, believed to have been the last member of the first
class of black aviators to train at Tuskegee Institute, was
buried with military honors at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.
It was a day short of what would have been the 63rd anniversary
of his history-making graduation as a fighter pilot. Custis
died Feb. 24.
"He paved the way for us, " said Victor Terrelong,
a Long Island resident who followed Custis at Tuskegee. "Even
though it was still hard, the first class made it easier for
all of us who came along later and wanted to fly."
"They wanted the experiment with Lem and the others to
fail," added Clayton F. Lawrence, referring to the racially
charged trial program that ended up producing the acclaimed
air squadrons. "But Lem and the others proved to those
who said we couldn't do the job that we could," said Lawrence,
a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Tuskegee alumnus and
president of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Claude B. Govan Tri-State
Custis was hired in 1939 as a Hartford police officer. He
left to enlist in World War II and graduated with four others
in the first flight class from Tuskegee in 1942. He flew 92
combat missions with the 99th Fighter Squadron and received
the Distinguished Flying Cross for heroism. He later returned
to Tuskegee as an advanced flight instructor, eventually leaving
the military as a captain.
"We stood on the shoulders of that class," said
Roscoe C. Brown Jr., a Tuskegee airman and an administrator
at City University of New York. "If he and the four others
from that class had not been successful 63 years ago, the rest
of us would never have been airmen."
Lee A. Archer Jr., a retired lieutenant colonel and a Tuskegee
airman, said Custis served as a role model for many young black
men who were in the service during World War II.
"He was a gentleman - well, as much of a gentleman as
you could be as an upperclassman at Tuskegee," Archer
said with a laugh. "But for the first time in my life,
there was someone I could emulate," Archer said. "My
goal was to be like him."
And while speakers at the funeral focused on Custis' military
accomplishments, his friends said it was not a subject Custis
"It wasn't until the last few years that he really talked
about his military service," said Bill Beeson, who with
his wife, Sheila, lived next door to Custis for 38 years. "And
then he wanted to talk more about England and Europe in the
war," said Beeson, a native of England. "He mostly
liked to talk about how his garden was doing or we'd talk about
"He was just a good person, an outstanding person who
was not vindictive or mean, and never talked bad about anyone," Sheila
Beeson said. "He was the greatest."
Among those attending the
funeral at the Farley-Sullivan Funeral Home in Wethersfield
were representatives of the Hartford Police Department, the
Connecticut State Police, several veterans' groups and state
Treasurer Denise Nappier. The service included two things
that Custis had specifically requested: a closed casket and
the singing of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Close friends said Custis sorely missed his wife, Ione, who
died in 1991. They had no children and friends said they believed
Custis had no other relatives.
"We were his family," said
Maria Perez, who with her brother, Hector Ayala, lived next
door to Custis for about nine years. The two were chosen
to receive the flag that draped Custis' coffin, an honor
they said was priceless.
"We used to take him to his doctor's appointments, help
him with chores, things like that," Perez said. "He
did so much for us, more than we did for him, so getting the
flag is such an honor. We will put it in a very special place
in our home."
Agreeing that Custis shunned the limelight, friends said he
would, however, have approved of the goodbye.
"He's surely smiling if he is watching this now," whispered
one mourner as he and about 100 others at the gravesite listened
to the sounding of taps and looked up to see four A-10 Warthogs
fly across a sunlit sky. As the quartet of jets headed to the
west, one flew out of formation following the military tradition
signifying a missing man.
"He loved his country, even when it didn't treat him
the way it should have," said Mark Evans, whose father
had worked with Custis. "He showed anyone who thought
otherwise that it is the mettle of the man, not the color of
his skin, that counts."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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