By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 1, 2011; 11:34 PM
Black bunting draped the sign in front of Charles H. Flowers High School in Springdale on Tuesday as students mourned the loss of a mentor and friend for whom the building had been named.
Charles H. Flowers Jr., 92, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, died of kidney and heart disease Friday. Students at the school, many of whom had shaken his hand at awards ceremonies or heard the stories he told when visiting classrooms, were notified of the death Friday afternoon.
"I was in English class. Everybody just looked at each other like, 'Oh, man,' " said Tobias Whitley, 17, a JROTC student from Largo who is headed to Johnson C. Smith College in North Carolina next year to study chemistry. "We couldn't believe it."
Several students said they plan to attend funeral services for Flowers. The school choir is to hold a concert Feb. 8 to celebrate his life.
Antonio Blakeney, 17, of Landover said he had been looking forward to Flowers gracing the stage when he graduates in June. "I was looking forward to shaking his hand on that day and saying thank you to him for all that he had done for our country," he said.
Retired Master Sgt. Andrew Hooker, a JROTC aerospace science instructor at the school, said Flowers had spent countless hours at the school since it opened in 2000, mentoring youths, congratulating students at commencement ceremonies and speaking to JROTC students about his adventures as a member of the U.S. government's experiment during World War II at a flight school and military training center in Tuskegee, Ala., to train black pilots.
"He really related to the students, and he wanted to interact with them," Hooker said. "Some of them were apprehensive to approach him because of who he was and what he had done, for fear that they would embarrass themselves or not be sophisticated enough to talk to him. But he didn't want to be treated like a relic, like dishes that you only eat off on holidays. He wanted them to reach out to him."
Chafon Martino, a second lieutenant in the JROTC program, said she had been apprehensive to approach Flowers. "He was history," she said. "When you read about history, you never know if what you read is really true. When you get to talk to someone who was a part of history, you find out the real story."
Flowers's wife of 63 years, Wilhelmina, said he was privileged to have the school named for him.
"My husband was never a person who felt of himself more highly than he should," she said. "That he had such a beautiful background and accomplished so many things was not something that he talked about."
Bill Broadwater, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen who met Flowers in the early 1960s, said Flowers began his career as a pilot instructor before taking cadet flight training at Tuskegee as a member of the Army Air Corps. He returned to flight instruction as a civilian, Broadwater said.
When the Tuskegee program closed in 1946, Flowers owned a drug store in North Carolina, then moved to Glenarden after a friend told him about job opportunities.
In the early 1960s, Flowers began working for a NASA contractor at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt as a satellite missions operation control coordinator, controlling satellites from the ground, according to his book, "Training the Best." He worked in personnel management for the company and retired as a human resources executive from his job at Goddard in 1990.
Flowers, the father of four children, two of whom died before he did, loved to fly, his wife said. "He used to take me up in a little cub coupe airplane on Sunday evenings," she said. "Some couples went for a drive. We would fly."
Broadwater said Flowers was extremely proud that a school had been named for him. "With his name in concrete, the possibility is that he and the contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen will endure for many generations," he said.