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Robin Washington column: Understanding, and appreciating, the life of Joe Gomer

The last few times I saw him, Joe Gomer really wanted to talk.

I'm sure it was because, at 93 and in failing health, he knew his time was short. But I also suspect he wanted to communicate with someone who he felt had an inkling of understanding about his life and times.

I don't think he initially thought of me that way, and can't remember when or where we first met; not uncommon in Duluth. But I faintly recall an early visit with him, and replying "I know" when he started telling about the Tuskegee Airmen.

The remark may have sounded like brushing him off, but it wasn't out of indifference or disrespect. To the contrary, I knew and valued the story greatly. My father was, like him, an officer in the Army Air Corps at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., during World War II, and a Northern black man enduring the indignities of the South for the privilege of serving his country. Unlike Gomer, he didn't get to fly or go overseas.

I also long before had met other Tuskegee Airmen who, like Joe, did fly into hostile skies, casting their fate to their P-47s and P-51s for a nation where half the populace would eagerly finish the job the Nazis began.

So maybe that "I know" came off as arrogant, given the more typical response in our area of unfamiliarity, or ignorance, of the evils of segregation and the pervasiveness of racism.

Meanwhile, Joe absolutely adored my wife, Julia Cheng. She was co-chair of the Clayton Jackson McGhie Memorial board of directors that honored him in 2009, just after he attended the inauguration of President Obama.

Accolades preceded that and many more followed: A statue, and another; each tribute to which Joe would embarrassingly respond, "I never thought I'd ever see the day that (insert honor here), but I will add it to my dash."

"He was a man who deserved everything the community could honor him with," his longtime friend Matt Carter said at his passing.

And somewhere during those years, we grew closer. He'd call to give me some news, each time talking a little longer; probing my knowledge, perhaps, for a hint of understanding the world he lived through.

Sunday afternoon, almost a year ago, he called my cell phone minutes after his beloved wife, Liz, died. Maybe he meant to call Julia's number. Maybe, in his modesty, he just wanted to let the paper know. Either way it was the right call; I put Julia on the line to comfort him, and put Liz's obit in the paper.

Then we talked a little longer, even after what needed to be said was said. So too in other encounters over his final year.

Added punctuation to the dash of a remarkable life.