Quentin Smith Sr. remembered as man of ‘heroic proportions’
By Lisa Deneal Post-Tribune correspondent January 22, 2013 5:30PM
Col. Duane Hayden, Tuskegee Airmen Chicago DODO Chapter, (front, left) and retired Army Col. Richard Ligon (front, right) lead the pallbearers in carrying the casket of Tuskegee Airman Quentin P. Smith, Sr. after his funeral at St. Augustine's Episcopal Church in Gary, Ind. Tuesday January 22, 2013. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 24, 2013 6:26AM
GARY — Family, friends, members of the military and fans of former Tuskegee Airman Quentin P. Smith Sr. filled the sanctuary of St. Augustine Church on Tuesday to say farewell to a respected local educator who had a role in military and African-American history.
Smith died Jan. 15 at the age of 94.
Smith’s legacy as a B-25 bombardier with the Tuskegee Airmen, a black World War II Army Air Corps, is well-known.
Indiana National Guard Maj. Gen. R. Martin Umbarger of Indianapolis reflected on a 21/2-hours-long meeting with Smith four years ago.
“When I was informed that an 90-year-old Tuskegee Airman was coming to meet with me, I envisioned him arriving in either a wheelchair or with a cane,” Umbarger said. “When this huge, tall man walked in my office with this strong voice, I thought, there’s no way this man is 90 years old!”
Umbarger added that most of Smith’s visit included lunch and conversation about his days as a Tuskegee Airman, including the harrowing story of Smith and 100 fellow Tuskegee Airmen being arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison after refusing to leave the segregated officers’ club.
Umbarger said Smith also told him stories of how white soldiers refused to work with or fly with him and other black airmen.
“I remembered his stories and how sad I was and I was ashamed of the bigotry Mr. Smith went through. He was willing to wear the uniform and work for our country,” Umbarger said.
Smith was also a Gary educator and administrator. He was the first principal of West Side High School and previously taught at the elementary, middle and high school levels.
In public service for the city of Gary, he was a councilman, president of the Gary/Chicago Airport Authority and held numerous other positions.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she was honored to hear him tell his stories.
Last year, Freeman-Wilson presented Smith with a replica of his Congressional Gold Medal — awarded in 2007 — which was stolen from his home.
“When I got word of Mr. Smith’s death, I thought of the irony of honoring a man shortly after the celebration of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s holiday and the second swearing-in of President Barack Obama. While these two men are great, we also have greatness in our community ... Quentin P. Smith is one of those people,” she said.
West Side senior Danielle Monroe, 17, attended the funeral wearing a school sweatshirt.
“My parents knew Mr. Smith and hearing the stories about him and that he was a Tuskegee Airman, I had to come and pay my respects. He should be a motivation for the kids today,” she said.
Quentin Smith Jr. shared a humorous story in which he asked his father for $15 for swimming lessons at the YMCA in downtown Gary.
“He said, ‘You don’t need $15! Put your shorts on!’ He then took me to the beach, walked to the shore and threw me in the lake. Minutes later I walked back to shore where he was sitting and reading. He asked how did I get back? I said, I guess I swam back ... and dad said, ‘there you go,’ ” the junior Smith said as the sanctuary filled with laughter.
In his homily St. Augustine pastor the Rev. Canon David L. Hyndman said he had known Smith as an active member of St. Augustine for 21 years.
“Quentin was a man of heroic proportions. We all stand on the shoulders of others; how many of us stood on his shoulders,” Hyndman said. “Quentin was one of the great people of this community and he never stopped teaching. As a man of prayer he was a mentor and a supporter.”