Retired Air Force Col. Kenneth O. Wofford was all about educating tomorrow's leaders and learning from yesteryear's experience. He encouraged young people to study hard for an aviation or other career. And he shared the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of young black men that included Wofford and that overcame prejudice to become top World War II pilots.
Wofford spent 32 years in what became the U.S. Air Force and flew combat zone missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. After retiring in 1974, he worked for a decade as manager of the Minnesota Office of Aeronautics and then focused on his passion: mentoring and challenging youth, especially those at risk, to overcome barriers and achieve their dreams.
"He stressed education to no end and to be the best that you could," said Mamie Singleton, who worked with him in St. Paul's Youth Initiative Mentoring Academies.
Wofford, 87, of Golden Valley, died Sunday at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, his son said Thursday.
He was a modest man, a Christian who believed "in putting your faith first," said his granddaughter, Christina Wofford Gaines, of Rochester, N.Y.
Wofford was inducted into the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 1999 and was an original board member of the group. He also was named an Elder Aviation Statesman by the National Aeronautic Association in 2001.
Wofford was among about 1,000 young black men segregated at the Tuskegee, Ala., airfield in the early 1940s. Despite a prejudicial mindset in much of the military establishment against allowing blacks to fly, they were trained as Army Air Corps fighter pilots.
Even after being shipped to Europe, the young fliers were scorned. But "their marvelous combat record proved them to be highly effective air warriors," said a release about Wofford's life from the Minnesota Wing of the U.S. Air Force's Civil Air Patrol.
Wofford served in the 99th Fighter Squadron, which was featured in the 1995 movie "The Tuskegee Airmen."
About sixty years after their service, Wofford and other surviving Tuskegee Airmen were honored in March 2007 when President George Bush awarded them the Congressional Gold Medal in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. According to a Star Tribune account, Bush saluted the Airmen and said:
“For all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities, I salute you for your service to the United States of America.”
Wofford often talked to schoolchildren and groups about the racial barriers the first black pilots had to overcome. He challenged them to follow the Tuskegee Airmen's motto, "Aim high."
Cadet Matthew Frame, 17, heard Wofford speak about a year ago to the Anoka chapter of the Civil Air Patrol. He said Wofford asked him afterward about his life plans. "He encouraged us to go higher and be better," Frame said. "He was an example of what many of us want to be when we grow up."
Wofford is survived by his wife of 66 years, Willetta Mae; a son, Kenneth Jr., of Rochester, N.Y., two granddaughters and four great-grandchildren. Services will be held at 10 a.m. Friday at Cornerstone Church, 3420 Nevada Av. N., Crystal, with visitation one hour beforehand.