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A Humble Man Who `Loved His Country'

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 Chapter.

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 talked about.

"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 our lawns."

"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. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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