Two men with historic pasts meet at Museum of Aviation

bpurser@macon.comOctober 26, 2012 

WARNER ROBINS -- Both men desired opportunities that most black men were initially denied in their generations.

William “Woody” Rice, 89, wanted to be a pilot. He was 19 when he joined the Tuskegee Airmen, the country’s first black military aviators. Rice, a replacement fighter pilot, protected American bombers flying into Germany during World War II. He flew 34 missions and later made a 41-year career with Boeing building helicopters.

Retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McNeil, 70, wanted to make things right for not only himself but for his parents and generations to come. He was 17 when he and three other North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students sat down and sought service at a segregated F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., Feb. 1, 1960.

McNeil later became a master navigator with more than 6,650 flight hours, serving in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. He was assigned to Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command at Robins Air Force Base from 1995 until he retired in February 2001.

The men met Friday at the Museum of Aviation in Warner Robins.

McNeil is in town for an annual golf tournament to raise scholarship funds distributed by the Middle Georgia-based Joseph A. McNeil Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc. He also wanted to view the museum’s Tuskegee Airman exhibit that features a display about McNeil, who was included as the chapter’s namesake.

Rice was in Warner Robins to take a tour of Robins Air Force Base and the museum, with plans to see the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit. The trip was arranged by his family members, including nephew Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Everett, who is stationed at Robins. Rice’s brother and brother-in-law also joined him for the tour.

When base and museum officials learned of the obvious connection between the two visits, the men were brought together and area media were invited.

McNeil was glad for the meeting. He said it’s important “to honor people like Mr. Rice who served our country. ... We owe them so much.”

Both men downplayed their roles in shaping American history.

“I wanted to be a pilot,” Rice said. “This was the way I could go in. It opened a door for me.”

He also said of going to war, “I was just doing my duty.”

McNeil, a member of the “Greensboro Four,” had hoped the nonviolent protest would make an impact, but he didn’t know it would spread quickly as a civil rights movement among college students across the Southeast. He said his decision to quietly protest was a matter of conscience.

Both men preferred to focus on the future -- not forgetting the past turmoil, pain and sacrifices when segregation was enforced through Jim Crow laws, but celebrating where the nation is headed and all that’s been accomplished.

The men also shared similar philosophies: to do the very best at whatever task given and to pay forward opportunities and breaks given in a lifetime.

“Having them here is really a neat experience,” said Mike Rowland, museum curator. “There’s nothing like meeting the flesh and blood persons who made history.”

Dan and Diane Diveney of Trenton, Ill., who were visiting the museum, happened to stop at the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit shortly after Rice and McNeil had left.

“It was almost like having a second Air Force,” Dan Diveney, a retired chief master sergeant who served 20 years in the Air Force as an avionics mechanic, said of the Tuskegee Airmen. “They really had a good history.”

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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