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16:18 PM

Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things

We all start out as ordinary. Somewhere along the line, though, life gives us—or we create—situations that allow us to transform. We become ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

Oftentimes, the person doing those extraordinary things doesn’t think of what they’re doing as out of the ordinary. They’re simply following their path, doing what seems right. They’re modest and focused on the tasks at hand. The people around them, their friends and family, can see that something is different and noteworthy, though. At Governors State University, we want to share some of those stories. We want to highlight ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

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Edward Vernon Willett, an alumnus of GSU, wasn’t trying to do anything historic when he joined the military. A member of the Illinois National Guard during high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1940. That decision started him on the path that led to him being one of the 10 original Tuskegee Airmen from Robbins, Illinois.

Named for the Alabama town they were stationed in, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in U.S. history. The men who comprised the corps were responsible for some of the most important and successful air strikes and missions during WW II.

In a document Willett prepared for his family, published on December 1, 2016, in the Yellow Springs News, he tells his own story:

In the spring of 1943, I went to Chicago and took the Army Air Force Cadet examination at the local Air Force cadet board. On or about November 1943, I received orders from Washington D.C. to report to the Air Force cadet classification center at Keesler Field in Mississippi. At this center, cadets were classified as to which training group they qualified for, such as pilots, bombardiers, and navigators.

I qualified to take the twin engine pilot training. We received the best training. “The best training in the world” sounds like a big statement—and it is—but that’s what America’s young got when they were accepted by the Army Air Force for training as “Pilots, Bombardiers and Navigators.”

I was in the European, African Middle Eastern Theater of World War II (Italy), with the 597th Field Artillery Battalion 92nd Infantry Div. Chief of section 105 MM Gun unit, and forward observer, both air and ground. During this service, I received the following honors: Two Service Stripes, Two Overseas Bars, American Defense Ribbon, American Campaign Medal, One Bronze Battle Star, Good Conduct Medal, World War II Victory Medal, and I fought in the battle of North Apennines.

After his discharge from the military in 1945, Willett served as a Chicago police officer for 31 years, then worked as an investigator for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He studied commercial photography and attended college part-time while serving on the police force, receiving degrees from Governors State University in 1978 (Board of Governors Degree Program) and 1980 (Master of Arts).

Edward Vernon Willett died on November 12, 2016. He was 95 years old, one of the last of the original Tuskegee Airmen. An ordinary person who did extraordinary things.