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updated: 4/10/2014 9:19 AM

Racial turbulence couldn't ground suburban pilot

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  • A standout pilot flying B-52s for the Air Force, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as the first African-American pilot at United Airlines, where he soared in an award-winning career.

      A standout pilot flying B-52s for the Air Force, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as the first African-American pilot at United Airlines, where he soared in an award-winning career.
    Courtesy of Bill Norwood

  • This United Airlines Boeing 727 on the cover of Capt. William R. Norwood's memoir now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry as part of a permanent exhibit on flight. As United's first African-American pilot and captain, Norwood's name graces the jet's nose.

      This United Airlines Boeing 727 on the cover of Capt. William R. Norwood's memoir now hangs in the Museum of Science and Industry as part of a permanent exhibit on flight. As United's first African-American pilot and captain, Norwood's name graces the jet's nose.
    Courtesy of Bill Norwood

  • A Jackie Robinson of the skies, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first African-American pilot.

      A Jackie Robinson of the skies, William R. Norwood was hired in 1965 as United Airlines' first African-American pilot.
    Courtesy of Bill Norwood

  • Inspired as a boy by a teacher who served with the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, William R. Norwood took advantage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to become the first African-American pilot and captain with United Airlines.

      Inspired as a boy by a teacher who served with the famous Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, William R. Norwood took advantage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to become the first African-American pilot and captain with United Airlines.
    Courtesy of Bill Norwood

  • Having to blaze his own trails, William R. Norwood became the first African-American to start at quarterback for Southern Illinois University. Getting some coaching from the friendly graduating quarterback, Norwood built a career that landed him in the school's Hall of Fame.

      Having to blaze his own trails, William R. Norwood became the first African-American to start at quarterback for Southern Illinois University. Getting some coaching from the friendly graduating quarterback, Norwood built a career that landed him in the school's Hall of Fame.
    Courtesy of Bill Norwood

 
 

Knowing longtime suburban resident William R. Norwood as the groundbreaking pilot whose name graces the Boeing 727 United jet on permanent display at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, it's shocking to hear him tell how his esteemed career suffered some early turbulence.

Growing up in downstate Centralia, the teenage Norwood did something deemed so egregious during the summer of 1952 that he was kicked out of high school for a year. He dated a white girl.

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"That was our world then," says Norwood, 78, who became United Airlines' first African-American pilot and captain before he retired with countless honors in 1996. He tells how he overcame the obstacles of racism and plenty more in his new memoir titled, "Cleared for Takeoff: A Pilot's Story of Challenges and Triumphs."

Always a top student, good athlete, hard worker and born leader, Norwood, at the urging of his always-supportive family, made the most of his yearlong ouster from high school.

"I had decided to go to work, go to church, and hope for the best," Norwood writes. He got a job with Siegler Co., where he worked on an assembly line spray-painting stoves, which honed his desire to do more with his life.

When he returned to school, Norwood vowed to not let the injustice of his treatment affect his education. "I worked diligently at becoming a better, smarter, more disciplined and thankful person," he recalls.

Racism was a part of his childhood. He couldn't swim in the public pool reserved for whites. He was unable to eat at the drugstore counter where his mother, a teacher before she married, was a cook.

"Growing up during that period, you never became a man," Norwood remembers. "You were a boy until you were 50, and then you became an 'Uncle.' You never became a man."

Education was the key to escaping that fate, says Norwood, who credits his academic success to parents Sam and Allineal Norwood and a host of teachers, including Principal William Harold Walker, a member of the famed Tuskegee Airman crew of African-American fighter pilots during World War II.

Friends Bobby Joe Mason (who later played for the Harlem Globetrotters) and Roland Burris (the first African-American elected to a statewide office in Illinois) persuaded Norwood to rejoin the high school football team. Although he quarterbacked an offense that saw him throw only four passes during his entire senior year, Norwood earned a scholarship to Southern Illinois University.

Receiving personal training from graduating quarterback Gerry Hart, Norwood became the first African-American quarterback at the state school, threw some long, memorable touchdown passes, and is enshrined in the SIU Hall of Fame for athletics, chemistry and Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.

That ROTC training led to Norwood qualifying for his pilot's license and an officer's position in the Air Force, where he excelled in flight training and piloted B-52s.

His greatest accomplishment during those years might have been his marriage to Molly Cross.

"I did real well there," Norwood says of his wife of nearly 54 years.

Also a graduate of SIU, Molly Norwood went on to be an elementary teacher in Palatine, start her own publishing company and serve as a trustee for Harper College.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 led to the pilot's hiring by United in 1965. The Norwoods were among the first black families to make homes in the suburbs, living in Elk Grove Village and Rolling Meadows. Their son, Bill Jr., joined the Army, became an air traffic controller and cleared his father to land on his final flight into O'Hare. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2003. The Norwoods' younger son, George, is an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of Illinois.

Now living in Arizona, the pioneering pilot returns to the suburbs later this month as "a visual aid" for his granddaughter Rianna's report for her middle school in Batavia. Inducted in 2008 as a Lincoln Laureate, our state's highest civilian honor, Norwood's honors could fill this column. Instead, we'll give you his key to achieving them.

"It's not what happens to you as much as it is how you respond to it," says Norwood, who never became bitter or vengeful after the abuses he endured. "To harbor that kind of anger is very destructive to a person. Life is too short, and we've been too blessed to carry around that unnecessary baggage."

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