01/26/2012 07:39 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Tuskegee Airman Hiram Mann Shares Life Lessons

Hiram Mann, 90, had to fight to find the work he loved, overcoming tremendous odds. The struggle and the rewards of his 90 years were encapsulated in his first words in our interview: "I was one of the original legendary Tuskegee Airmen."

America is waking up to one of the 20th century's amazing stories: the Tuskegee Airmen, now receiving well-deserved attention in the film "Red Tails," which opened January 20. People are riveted by how the Airmen risked their lives in World War II and helped desegregate the armed forces. I was privileged to be able to include one of these modern legends in my book based on interviews with hundreds of older Americans. (Hiram is in the front row, left, of the Library of Congress photo that accompanies this story.)

Hiram fought to achieve his childhood dream of flying, and in so doing he learned invaluable lessons for finding fulfilling work despite enormous obstacles. In his words:

Back when I wanted to get into the military, before America got into the fighting in WWII, I wanted to fly an airplane. I had never been in an airplane in my life, though we'd seen them fly over. Well, I was a Depression-era child and pennies were very, very, tight to come by, but I would save my pennies in my wooden box and go to the hobby shop and try to make model airplanes and things, when I wanted to fly.

Sometime in early 1941, I wanted to know about getting flying instructions to fight for my country. The letter of rejection that I received said point-blank, no easy words to smooth it over, that there were no facilities to train Negroes to fly in any branch of the American military service. That ticked me off. I balled the letter up and threw it away. There were Negroes that wanted to fly. But, all over the United States there were others in similar situations. I went back to my job being a bellhop in Cleveland, Ohio.

I applied again and I was very lucky. I passed and I continued to pass all of the examinations that I was given and I was in the 27th class that graduated.

Hiram refused to give up despite setbacks and his own self-doubt that emerged from being raised in a segregated society. He needed a mix of courage, drive, patience, and forbearance to succeed in the 1940s military, where blacks were unusual and black officers an exotic curiosity. Nevertheless, he achieved his dream of fighting for his country, putting his life at risk in the war in Europe:

I was in combat. I'm a combat survivor. One of the questions a young man asked me was, "Were you afraid?" And I said, "Yes, I was afraid! When you let somebody get behind you who's shooting at you and they're trying to kill you and you know they are trying to kill you, you'd be afraid too if you had any sense." So I will not lie. I told him, "Yes I was afraid." I could see the bullets coming.

Hiram used the military experience, despite its difficulties, to create a career path that would have been almost unimaginable to him as a child. He might be looking back on a lifetime as a hotel bellhop rather than as one of the pioneers of desegregation in the military, sought after in his ninth decade as a speaker, and a living symbol of perseverance in the face of adversity.
In the Legacy Project, Hiram shared some of his lessons for living:

On tolerance:

I accept my fellow man as an individual. I try not to prejudge. I try to enter, whatever the situation may be, to get going to it with an open mind. I don't look down at my skin or anyone else's and say, "Oh, I'm colored." That's the way I approach most areas that I get into. I don't let being colored keep me from doing something. Tolerate the other person. Tolerance -- that goes a long way

On perseverance:

Well, my mother, to go back to her basic teachings, she would not let me look down. "Hold your head up. No matter what, hold your head up." And, my mother could not stand when I would say that I don't have the background to do so and so and so. "What do you mean you don't have the background?" She couldn't stand that word background, whether it meant black versus being white, or education, or whatever. She told me: "Don't get angry. Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me." That was the way I was brought up.

On creating a legacy:

My legacy--I don't know just what it's going to be. I haven't written it yet. But I do hope that I've contributed something to mankind, individually as well as collectively. I know that the black pilots were instrumental in doing away with segregation in the United States. We broke the ice. We were a cause for eliminating segregation because of our combat record. We, the 332nd fighter group which later was re-designated as the Tuskegee Airmen, became the most requested unit to fly escort duty for the bombers because of the protection we gave them. There's my part in that. Nothing I did individually, but my contribution to that will be part of my legacy. I'm very proud of the life I've lived. I'm proud of having been a black pilot and my contribution to society.

Words worth considering when we face obstacles and discouragement in our own careers.

Check out the video below of Tuskegee Airmen Lt. Col. Hiram Mann and Lt. Col. Leo Gray.