In his luncheon address to the Clemson University Men of Color National Summit, the president of Robert Morris University encouraged the group of high school and college students to be yourself, be humble, be accountable, be courageous and be the change in the world you want to live in.
Mixing stories of growing up, attending middle school, playing high school football and learning to fly fighter jets, Dr. Chris Howard delivered an inspirational message of possessing the courage to do the right thing and to treat others with respect.
Howard told them it was vitally important that they be themselves and not to be tempted to make bad decisions. “When you don’t think people are watching you, they’re watching you,” he said.
Earlier, Clemson President Jim Clements recognized the 400 members of the Tiger Alliance, as well as the 91 high school seniors preparing to graduate who are members of the Tiger Alliance or Clemson’s Emerging Scholars Program. “Ask what difference you will make,” he said. “What will your legacy be? Use your God-given talents to make the world a better place.”
Board Chairman Smyth McKissick encouraged the group to take advantage of the opportunities they will be presented with at the summit and in the days to come. “We are all here because we are dedicated to helping you be successful in higher education,” he said.
Howard, a retired Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel, described the day in January 1995 when he was piloting a T-37 training jet that he suddenly found hurtling toward the ground at more than 300 miles per hour. Howard managed to eject moments before it crashed but landed hard and injured his knee. He spent eight weeks undergoing rehabilitation for a knee injury and after being cleared to fly again he faced a difficult decision.
Howard said his thoughts turned to “all of the people who had done things for me, especially people of color, who put me in that cockpit.” He said he reflected on the African-Americans who served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War; the 9th and 10th cavalries of the Buffalo Soldiers who served in the American West; and the 332nd Fighter Pursuit Group of Tuskegee Airmen known as the Red Tails.
He recalled his father, a combat engineer who served in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star, and his uncle, who did two tours as an artillery man in the 101st Airborne Division.
Howard said he chose to get back into the cockpit, and eight months later he became a U.S. Air Force pilot.“You’ll never be a leader unless you show a modicum of physical, moral, emotional and spiritual courage,” he said. Being courageous is not always about facing down physical danger, he said. Being courageous is being measured by how you treat people, and choosing the more difficult right answer over the wrong answer.
In closing, Howard told them not to wait to become the change in the world you want to see. “Realize that you have an army, you have battalions of people (behind you) black, white, green, purple, straight, gay, North, South, every zip code in the country.”
Ryan Cooper, an 18-year-old first-year student at Georgia Institute of Technology, said he found Howard’s address inspiring. He said he marveled at his bravery and questioned whether he, himself, would have gotten back into the cockpit.
Cooper, who is majoring in industrial engineering with a minor in social justice, said he was looking forward to connecting with black men who aspire to lead and learning life lessons from the speakers during the two-day summit.
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