Life Lessons from a Tuskeegee Airman

We’d like to share the story of one of the true heroes we encountered in the Legacy Project. TUSKEGEE-AIRMENWe heard many accounts of overcoming adversity and discrimination, but no interviewee was more inspiring than Hiram Mann (pictured here in World War II). Hiram had to fight to find the work he loved, overcoming racial prejudice along the way. 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.”

In the early 1940s the military was almost completely segregated and the Air Force did not even allow Black people to enlist. But what if, as a young Black man, this was your chosen career, indeed your life’s mission?

Hiram’s experiences as part of this unique group allowed him to achieve his childhood dream, and so shaped his lessons for work and career.

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 a wooden box and go to the hobby shop and try to make model airplanes, because I wanted to fly so badly.

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 Blacks like me that wanted to fly. 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 thus 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 Black soldiers were unusual and Black officers a rare 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 person 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.

Although others might have given up, Hiram refused to become discouraged by the racial environment in the Air Force. Instead, he used the military experience, despite its difficulties, to create a career path that would have been almost unimaginable to him as a child. He bacame 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 – all good advice for young people today:

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. That’s the way I approach most areas that I get into. Tolerate the other person..Tolerance – that goes a long way

On perseverance:

My mother had her basic teachings, she would not let me look down. She would tell me: “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.”

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 that 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 of my contribution to society.

To learn more, here’s a video of Hiram sharing his life lessons to young people.

An Elder’s Advice for Getting through the Crisis

We have been asking older people for their advice on how we can cope with the current corona virus crisis. They have lived through other cataclysmic events, so we should take their suggestions very seriously. We’ve opened a new site where older people can share their advice, or younger people can interview their elders and post their advice. Please join in!

Ken, age 82, offers his advice to younger people:

The COVID-19 pandemic is a highly unusual period in everyone’s life. It has seemingly turned life up-side-down. I have experienced a variety of crisis in my 82 years, such as World War II,  the polio epidemic, deadly hurricanes, floods, and other traumatic events. There was a common thread that runs through each of them. That is, the people who truly care put their shoulders to the grindstone and do whatever it takes to help others survive and carry on. By pitching in and following the prescribed protocols and mandates, we will be helping to mitigate the virus’ deadly threats. That’s the least we can do.

We can do more if we live in a neighborhood or a community that needs help. Know what is happening to people’s lives as we work our way through this challenge. Start with one’s own family, one’s extended family, and one’s community. Families are making huge sacrifices and their concerns are not limited to health but to economics as well. It doesn’t matter if a person is 4 years old or 104 years old, there may be things that can be done to help one in need. Yes, be concerned about one’s own situation but focus on the greater good that could be done. Every day in life we are presented with a question. Am I contributing toward goodness or not? When we do contribute we can look back and not complain about the past but to have gratitude for how we were able to respond. Our gratitude can be for all the medical personnel and first responders who are on the front lines protecting us. We need not overlook all the essential workers and the legions of volunteers who devote   their time to make lives better for their communities. Yes, these are indeed challenging times but as all life on this amazing planet, we are all interconnected   and what we do to help others makes life not only have much meaning but makes us more human.

One brief story. I live in the Adirondack Mountains but I grew up along the coast of Rhode Island. As a child during WW II, we had many more governmental restrictions than the current virus restrictions. Most  everything was rationed or totally not available. Many food items were no longer available. Most everyone had to walk anyplace. There was limited gas   for cars. No cars were being made anyway. Auto makers were only making tanks. We had to use ration stamps when purchasing things. We could purchase only one pair of shoes each year. We had total blackouts on many nights do to German subs waiting off-shore to sink American ships. Daily practice bombing runs took place over our home by the Naval Aviators. So what do little kids do in my community? We had our little wagons and went door to door asking for scrap metal of any kind and rags. The metal went into making military weapons and the rags were for the war effort at home where they were need in the factories. Everybody pitched in to defeat the enemy. There was great fear on the part of our community but we all stuck together and did whatever we could to survive. Neighbors helped neighbors. That was then and this is now. Neighbors still help neighbors.

How to Survive a Crisis: Advice from the Wisest Americans

Who better to tell us how to survive and thrive in a crisis than elders who lived through the Great Depression, World War II, and even the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic? It’s a pleasure to share these insights from the Cornell Chronicle.

The COVID-19 pandemic has us asking difficult questions: How will we survive this? What are we willing to sacrifice? What comes next?

In a moment that feels unprecedented, we can learn from the hard-won wisdom of a generation that weathered the most devastating events of the 20th century and lived to tell the tale.

Karl Pillemer, the Hazel E. Reed Professor in the College of Human Ecology’s Department of Human Development, began a 10-year project interviewing older Americans in 2003, his research described in his 2012 book, “30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.”

Pillemer is also professor of gerontology in medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, and senior associate dean for research and outreach in the College of Human Ecology. His major research interests include human development, with a special emphasis on family and social relationships in middle age and beyond.

For his research, Pillemer started with the premise that older people have invaluable knowledge on how to live well through hard times. The average age of his interviewees was 77; the oldest was 108. Approximately 1,000 of them outlasted the Great Depression, 1,200 endured World War II and 60 survived the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

He asked them: Based on your experience of these world-shaking crises, what advice do you have for living through them?

Take the long view

Although the COVID-19 pandemic is changing the nation, the very longevity of the oldest Americans is proof this crisis will end and rebuilding will begin. The elders can provide us with the long view, confirming in a literal sense that “this, too, shall pass.”

“I met Holocaust survivors, refugees from many of the early 20th century’s other major conflicts, and people who lost everything in the Depression,” Pillemer said. “By the time I sat with them 40, 50, 60, or 70 years later, they had built comfortable, often successful and fulfilling lives. Their message was extraordinarily clear: Crises occur, societies change and, with resilience, we recover and move on.”

Focusing on what your future can be a decade or more from now can provide an antidote to worry, the elders advise. This lesson is also a reminder: Present actions are the future stories of how we survived. What story do we want to tell?

Be generous

If you want to help yourself, the elders said, help others. Pillemer noted that their own poor families helped out even poorer ones during the Great Depression. They remember World War II as a time when communities came together and everyone joined hands and hearts to support one another at home.

“Generously assisting other people to the extent that we can is a major way people are able to feel a sense of control,” Pillemer said. “Whether that was helping other people during the Great Depression or assisting the war effort during WWII. Generously helping others is a very good, self-interested strategy.”

Don’t worry – prepare instead

The oldest Americans have experience worrying about an event, going through the event and dealing with the fallout. According to Pillemer, they overwhelmingly agree: At best, worrying wastes time; at worst, it increases your suffering.

“They found that the best antidote to gnawing worries was taking action,” Pillemer said. “Preparation for the worst doesn’t just make sense for your protection; it also makes you feel empowered. From their experience of crisis, they advise that conscious, rational planning greatly reduces free-floating worry.”

Enjoy small daily pleasures

The last lesson Pillemer shared was the importance of experiencing joy and savoring small daily pleasures. When people seek happiness, they often think about “big-ticket” items: buying a house, finding a partner, having a child, getting a new job, making more money. The elders tell us that a positive attitude in a crisis depends on thinking small.

“A morning cup of coffee … a brightly colored bird feeding on the lawn, an unexpected letter from a friend, even a favorite song on the radio,” he said. “Paying special attention to these ‘microlevel’ events forms a fabric of happiness that lifts them up daily. They believe the same can be true for younger people as well.”

Pillemer’s research highlights the wisdom of a disappearing generation, and the inestimable value of the stories and knowledge of the elders among us. And so, with no small amount of urgency, one final lesson taken from Pillemer’s lead: Ask your elders your questions while you can, and find comfort in their resilience.

Written by E.C. Barrett who is a freelance writer, for the Cornell Chronicle.

Elder Wisdom for Living through a Crisis

The majority of our population has never lived through a global crisis like the current one. But there is a source of wisdom and reassurance for living through catastrophic times that has existed for as long as human beings have been human: The oldest people among us.

I began interviewing the oldest Americans in 2003, focusing on people in their 80s, 90s, and beyond. It was an opportune moment, because many members of the “War and Crisis Generation” were still alive. I was able to capture the advice of people who had lost everything in the Great Depression, fought in World War II or kept their families together during that time, or survived the Holocaust. Remarkably, I  interviewed over 60 people who lived through the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic, to which the current one is being compared.

You can find detailed advice for living well through hard times in my book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans. But there’s one point I will make here that stands out: You will get through this, and it will one day be a memory rather than a current reality. In hundreds of interviews with people who lived through world-shattering events, I saw how they survived and eventually thrived. Taking the long view at a time like this can help you maintain peace of mind.

As you hunker down, take some time to listen to the elders who gave their advice on our YouTube Channel. Here are three of our favorite lessons about being resilient and not giving up when times get tough.

People over Things

There is no one among the elders who does not prefer to be comfortable financially. What is clear from their lessons, however, is that they believe “enough is enough.” Time spent earning enough money is time reasonably well spent. Time earning an excess of money far beyond that required to meet one’s needs, however, is time wasted.

Very often, the elders pointed to a conflict between the pursuit of money and putting a priority on personal relationships. They stand firmly on the side of investing in relationships:

I have been poor, and I have been rich, but I feel best when I have a coterie of people who like and respect me for what I am, and not what I have. (Clinton, 67)

Surround yourself with people you love. It’s nice to have money and be able to live well, but loved ones are more important than possessions. (Malinda, 72)

Material things are useful, but good relationships with God and the people around you make life worth living. (Neil, 90)

Last but not least, money isn’t everything. Take time to have some fun in life. It’s not all dreary and dog-eat-dog. Stop and smell the roses. (Darren, 73)

Of all the elders who made this point, one in particular stuck with me, from Joshua, 74. He told me that it all comes down to making connections with and caring about others:

Well, who have you helped? What circles do you move in? Some people I’ve known, they never helped anybody. They were never in any circles – they lived their own life totally unto themselves. You know what? Nobody would go to their funerals. It would be as though they never passed by on earth. So if I stick my head in a hole and think of just myself, and I don’t try to do some good and get out and interact and use my braints to help people, then nobody will come to my funeral. And I’ll deserve it!

A Dog Story: What our Pets Can Teach Us

Although we don’t own a dog ourselves, we are very excited to have a new granddog, Otto (pictured below). This new arrival in the family reminded me of a number of elders who had learned very important lessons for living from the experience of owning a pet. Francine’s interview especially came to mind.

Francine, 74,  lives in a small, tidy home in an urban neighborhood. She was married for many years, but lost her husband to Alzheimer’s disease after years of caregiving.

One of her dreams was to have a dog, but circumstances never permitted it. Recently, she fulfilled that dream, and it changed her life. I met the dog in question, whom she refers to as her “little buddy.” A bit of a misnomer, as her “little buddy” was a large and very energetic fellow. She told me that loving a pet is a a special enhancement to living (and a motivation for staying healthy):

I got my dog when he was about four months old, so we’ve been together now two years. People asked whether at this stage of my life, I really wanted a dog, and I said, “Oh yes, I’ve been waiting all my life.”

He loves me so much, I have to put him out every day for a certain time, just to have time for myself. If he’s here he’s right next to me like Velcro.

I couldn’t have a dog before because of my husband and work, and I did wait a year after Marty died before I got one. So now we live together, just the two of us.

I’ve learned that everything in life is on loan. And all these years I’ve been waiting to have my buddy, my dog. But I have seen people would lose their pets and be so upset. And I would say to them, “I know, it would be awful. But you see, the day you take that pet into your care and you’re responsible for it, you have to start letting go.”

When I asked her later in the interview about her attitude toward the end of life, she said:

I would say that I’m not worried about it, I’m peaceful about it. But now, I have wanted my little buddy who’s waiting out there so long, and I’ve accepted that we will have ten, possibly longer years in his life and he’s my big joy. So now I want to stay fit so that I live as long as he does!

A Different New Year’s Resolution: Doing Well for Others

For the New Year, we often make specific resolutions: Lose weight, get exercise, work harder (or work less), and so on. If we ask the oldest Americans, we might hear them endorse something more general: Resolving to be more compassionate.

Many elders thought of happiness in terms of compassion and service to others. Carmen, 80, has lived a very full life, and has thought deeply about the sources of  happy living. Her advice is to focus on others and to carefully consider the effects of our actions.

This is my response about the most important lessons I have learned in my life. I am an 80 year-old woman and have been married for 56 years. I graduated from law school, practiced law for five years, and then left the practice to raise a family.

The single most important lesson that I have learned is that personal happiness depends on doing the best you can for the people to whom you owe a duty. The best attitude with which to approach life is to recognize that what others do to you does not matter. What counts is what you do to others. The greatest enemy of one’s own happiness is guilt about one’s own actions. All of our life choices should be guided by the goal of avoiding decisions that will make us feel guilty.

The greatest waste of time is to worry about how others may have mistreated oneself. The actions of others are their problem alone. The best use of our lives is to discharge our duties with joy and to recognize that we can only be truly happy when we do as well as possible whatever we undertake to do. With the caveat that one is not engaging in activities that are harmful to others or to oneself, what counts in life is not what one does, but how well one does it. The lowliest job done properly is more gratifying than the most elevated activity done poorly, and when both activities are done well, they are of equal value.

The best guiding principle for achieving a guilt-free life is to adopt philosopher Immanuel Kant’s imperative to treat everyone as an end in themselves and never as a means to an end and to never take any action which you would not want all people in a similar situation to take. As I near the end of my own life, my only regrets are about the things I might have done better and those things all relate to the happiness of others. There is no such thing as personal happiness divorced from the happiness of others. We cannot be truly happy when we cause unhappiness to others.

Home for the Holidays? Here’s Wisdom on How to Enjoy It

It’s the time of year when extended families – who may not see much of one another during the year – come together to celebrate the seasonal holidays. If popular culture is to be believed, many parents and their adult children (and in-laws) look forward to the holiday with a mix of pleasure and worry about how everyone will get along. My surveys of approximately 2000 elders translate to the experience of around 160,000 Christmases or Hanukkahs. Here’s their elder wisdom for how families can have a harmonious holiday together.

Eliminate Politics from the Dinner Table Discussion

When you are together at the holidays, the elders advise, make contentious political arguments out of bounds. The elders say that these conflicts are simply unnecessary. Often, the urge is to make your loved ones “really understand” what’s going on in society and to show them how irrational or wrong-headed they are politically. The elders’ advice: Get your family to make it a rule to take noisy and unnecessary political debates off the table. (Remember, we’re not talking here about a lively, enjoyable political discussion; they mean the kind that ends with slamming doors and a spouse crying in the car).

Gwen Miles, 94, after many angry family fights over Democrats versus Republicans put her foot down: “I made the rule that there would be no discussions of politics when we were all together. And I said to my husband: “If Dad starts in about politics, I’m going to walk out of the room and you come see what’s wrong with me because I don’t want to hear this anymore.” The elders recommend applying this same rule to other “hot-button” issues  When buttons are pushed on a repetitive and sensitive topic, “just saying no” to the debate is an excellent – and potentially relationship-saving – option.

Don’t Try to Fix Each Other’s Life at the Holidays

When it comes to parents relating to their adult children, the elders are unequivocal: Let them live their own lives. They sum up this principle as: Don’t interfere unless they ask for your help. As Harriet, age 79, told me: “Give your kids their own lives. Don’t make demands on them. Just be there for them when they need you. And certainly don’t tell them what to do.” Joyce, 90, agreed: “It’s their life. It’s not my life. They all have their own way to do things and if they get into trouble and want some help, they’ll come to me.” Christmas dinner is not the time to exhort your child to get out of a relationship or get into one, to get a new job or stay in the old one, or to get his or her life on track. And the same holds true in the other direction: This is not the time for adult offspring to push the folks to sell the house or to start exercising. Let the holiday also be a break, the elders say, from trying to change one another.

Don’t Take Everything Personally 

The elders recommend an important strategy when the family is all together: de-personalize negative interactions as much as you can. By considering, for example, how parents’ (or parents-in-law’s) background and upbringing influence their attitudes and behavior, it’s possible to take conflict less personally and achieve some emotional distance in the relationship. Annie, 81, lived near her parents-in-law for most of her married life and the relationship was not an easy one. But when they got together on holidays, she made this rule: “Rather than assume the worst, it’s more helpful to assume that they are saying things to you because they want to help their child and you. Try to realize that their intentions are good and sometimes people, especially as they get older, can’t change the way they deal with others in their life.” Parents can take the same approach toward their adult children.

Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing It

This final tip from the elders is one that many have used like a mantra in difficult family situations. Tell yourself this: the effort to accommodate your family is one of the greatest gifts you can offer – both to them, and to yourself. The closest thing to a “magic bullet” for motivating yourself to put the effort into a Christmas gathering, the elders tell us, is to remember that you are doing it because you love your family. Talking about in-laws, Gwen said: “You may not like your in-laws very much but you certainly can love them and stay close to them.” According to our elders, stepping back and taking this larger view can get you through the mince pie with a minimum of stress.

 

Some Reflections for the Holiday Season: Samuel’s List for Living

We always love what we call “Lists for Living” we receive from elders. As we enter the holiday time, Samuel’s list of advice for younger people has many points to ponder.

It is with a sense of gratitude and gratification that I take the opportunity to express the feelings and thoughts which I gathered over the years. I am hopeful that the younger readers will appreciate these experiences. I am 87 years old, male, boasting an active mind, with healthy body, sound vision and using my own set of teeth.

 Family

            Family life has been the established group living for centuries. There is no substitute for that in terms of gratification, self-worth, and completeness. It provides the best combination for physical, emotional, and spiritual fulfillment. At the end of the day, I could say: I am glad to be alive. Of course, I was fortunate to have found an ideal mate.

 How to Succeed

            To succeed in any art or endeavor, one must love it passionately and that comes with the admiration of the masters who had contributed to its development.

 Making Decisions

            Do not decide on major matters at abnormal times, places, or moods. Try to be alone in a calm and secluded place, away from the environment which caused the problem. You will then discover or uncover an inspiring solution.

 Prepare Yourself An Alternative

            When you face a situation which seems difficult or impossible to resolve, despite a persistent perseverance, do not get discouraged. Instead, find an alternative to lean on. This will help you face the problem with a positive solution and avoid the feeling of disappointment. It works!

 Heed Your Feelings and Thoughts

            Your instincts are worth pursuing all the way towards achievement. If you cannot do what you like, then LIKE what you are doing. Go as far as you can see, then see how far you can go!

 Taking Risks

            Nothing ventured is nothing gained. In cultivating a close relationship with a special woman, for example, take chances; you may be surprised. When you pursue this relationship, bring out the best in her. Love is such a wonderful feeling. Make the most of it, with patience and perseverance. Your mate may be hard to understand sometimes; but try to conquer her or him with love and companionship. That is precious.

 Spirituality    

            No matter what faith one follows, there is a need for the spiritual link with Creator, God, as well as relationship with the universe. Life is richer and deeper with this connection.

Give the Gift of Elder Wisdom this Year (It Never Wears Out!)

Looking for a more meaningful gift this year? What about practical advice from the wisest Americans?

One of my local heroes (yes, she lives near me) is the advice columnist Amy Dickinson (otherwise known as Ask Amy). She has come up with a great idea: That everyone on Christmas morning should get a special gift: A book placed on the end of their bed for when they wake up in the morning. Amy’s point is one of the best presents we can give still comes in the form of an old-fashioned book.

At the Legacy Project, we hope you might consider giving the special gift of elder wisdom this year. 30 Lessons for Living; Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans offers the advice of over 1000 elders on topics like marriage, work, child-rearing, and growing older. Reviewers have praised it, like Harold Kushner (author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People), who wrote: “I can’t imagine anyone whose life will not be enriched by this book.” And it’s made it onto lists of top gift books.

And if you know someone who is searching for a partner or looking to make a long-term relationship work, the Legacy Project also has a book for that! A great gift is 30 Lessons for Loving: Advice from the Wisest Americans on Love, Relationships, and Marriage. They can learn from hundreds of people who have been happily married for 30, 40, 50 and more years.

Christmas and Chanukah are times when many of us see our older relatives and most of us think back to those with whom we celebrated the holiday in the past. The goal of these two books is to make sure their wisdom is not lost, and to pass it on to generations to come.