SEATTLE -- George Hickman's love of airplanes helped him to become one of the first African-American fighter pilots in World War II, and his engineering brilliance earned him a career at Boeing.
Later, through his love of people and sports, he became a beloved usher at University of Washington and Seahawks games, where he offered handshakes and greeted many fans, reporters and athletes by name.
Mr. Hickman, 88, died early Sunday morning at Virginia Mason Hospital and Medical Center after a heart attack.
He left a legacy of never letting anything slow him down, said his daughter, Regina Melonson.
Mr. Hickman was born in St. Louis on Aug. 6, 1924, and dreamed as a young boy of being a pilot. After high school, he joined the Army and eventually enrolled at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he learned to fly with the nation's first black pilots during World War II.
The all-black 99th Air Squadron broke barriers because many people had believed African Americans were not capable enough to be pilots. The men trained in a segregated unit, and 450 of the 992 original airmen ultimately did fight in Europe.
Though it crushed Hickman when he was not chosen to be among them, he was part of a squadron that helped lead to a desegregated military.
In 2007, Mr. Hickman and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal.
His fascination with aeronautics led him to college and graduate school, and eventually to jobs at Air Force bases in Illinois and Texas.
In the early 1950s, Mr. Hickman accepted a job over the phone to work in Amarillo, Texas, as an aircraft systems instructor. According to the story he told Melonson, "when he showed up and they saw he was African American, they were just flabbergasted. But they hired him, because he knew more than anyone else down there."
He was recruited to Seattle to work for Boeing as an instructor, an engineering supervisor and eventually a senior manager. He retired in the mid-1980s.
He loved sports and served as an usher for more than four decades at University of Washington events and as an usher in the Seahawks press box. His last Seahawks game was last weekend.
"He is a kind and gentle man, the picture of serenity in press boxes usually crackling with anxiety," Seattle Times columnist Steve Kelley wrote about him in 2007.
Head UW basketball coach Lorenzo Romar said Hickman made whomever he was talking to feel better.
"He's been here every home game," he said. "I can remember he's been here to shake your hand and to encourage you ... He always had an encouraging word."
Mr. Hickman and his wife, Doris, raised four children in Seattle's Montlake neighborhood, sending them all through St. Joseph School on Capitol Hill. He was the first black chair of the school commission at St. Joseph, and helped guide it through an era of racial tension.
"He was always a gentleman, and he was always someone who positively tried to bring people together and seek common ground," said George Hofbauer, the school's retiring principal.
Melonson said her father never lectured his children about how to respond to racism, but instead led them by example as he broke through barriers while treating everyone with love and respect.
"My father loved life. He loved people," said Melonson. "He ventured out and was courageous to do things that other people would maybe be afraid to do, especially because of all the racism and discrimination he experienced. He just never let it slow him down. I think probably his legacy is he never held negative opinions of people who mistreated him."
He and other members of the Tuskegee Airmen were invited as special guests to the 2009 inauguration of President Obama. He told his family it amazed him "that he would live long enough to see an African-American president in the White House," said Melonson.
Mr. Hickman is survived by his wife, Doris Hickman, and four children: Regina Melonson and son-in-law Wayne Melonson, of Seattle; Sherie Hickman Gaines and son-in-law Vincent Gaines, of Oakland, Calif.; son Vincent Hickman, of Lynnwood; and daughter Shauneil Robinson and son-in-law Dean Robinson, of Fontana, Calif. He had three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
He had many friends, new and old. He still kept in touch with many of his classmates from Sumner High School in St. Louis, several of whom were also Tuskegee Airmen.
* Seattle Times staff reporter Percy Allen contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffterseattletimes.com.