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Tuskegee Airman didn't let prosthetic leg slow him down

Selwyn Wilson, Tuskegee airman.

Selwyn J. Wilson’s prosthetic leg was crafted in the 1940s from a plastic hard as Bakelite and a leather so pliable and strong that it could withstand the tension from a team of straining draft horses.

It was as weighty and indestructible as the cars and refrigerators churned out during that pinnacle era of American industrial design.

Yet it was comfortable; its dimensions exactly right for his height and weight.

And it had a feature that endeared it to Mr. Wilson, a Tuskegee Airman who lost his leg after a flight-training accident. It was tinted the same color as his brown skin – an unusual accommodation for a time when flesh-toned always meant pink.

It was the leg that helped him win his first bride – she said she would marry him if he could walk into church on their wedding day. It was the leg that helped him escort his daughters down the aisle. The leg that carried him to DePaul University on the GI bill.

Soon, his children will honor his wish to be buried with it.

Mr. Wilson, 86, died Tuesday in his Lombard home. He was sitting in his chair, watching TV. His children think he was probably watching the Westerns he never tired of.

It had been 66 years since he had been severely burned in the plane crash. That put him in a military hospital for more than a year, turned his right hand into a claw, burned one ear down to a nub and cost him his right leg above the knee.

It had been 66 years since doctors told him he would never walk, hold down a job or have children.

But Mr. Wilson tended not to listen when told he couldn’t do something.

He married twice, became an accountant and had a family. Once he drove all the way to Alaska in his big Pontiac Bonneville with modified pedals that let him control the car with his left leg. He designed and helped build his home, hammering nails by training himself to use his left as his dominant hand.

He grew up near Jackson and Western. He talked about spending all day on Saturdays at the movie theater, lost in the American West for the price of a dime. His favorite Western film star was Tex Ritter, father of the late actor John Ritter.

After graduating from Crane High School, he entered the Army Air Corps. He was introduced to a new reality when the train from Chicago to Tuskegee, Ala., crossed the Mason-Dixon line. “When they got halfway there, all of the black soldiers had to get off and get in the back,” said his daughter, Toni Royster.

He trained as a bombardier with the stereotype-busting African-American pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1945, “They were on a flight from Tuskegee to Fort Knox. It refueled at Fort Knox, took off, was unable to gain altitude and crashed,” said his son, Mark.

Mr. Wilson was thrown clear but was burned in a puddle of gasoline. “It continued to burn and smolder on him until they could get him to a hospital,” Royster said. “He spent more than a year in the hospital and they amputated his leg. In fact, they threatened to court-martial him because he wouldn’t let them take his other leg.”

Mr. Wilson also seemed to be invisible to white nurses who were his caregivers at his first post-crash hospital in the South. They walked right past him to tend to Caucasian patients instead, he told his children.

He never forgot one nurse who turned his body and cleaned his wounds. “She worked with him until they could get him to Percy Jones [Army] Hospital in Battle Creek,” his son said.

A German technician crafted his prosthetic. “He could still use it, 60 years later,” Royster said. “He wouldn’t let us get him another one. . . . My father was always very grateful to him because [the technician] was very caring and particular.

“In his will, he asked that he be buried with that leg,” she said.

After the war, he studied accounting and worked for decades at LaSalle Quilting and Inter Ocean Cabinet. In 1953, he built a home in a new development in Lombard, but not everyone welcomed black faces. “Our mailbox was blown up one night and there was a cross burned on the lawn,” said his son, who remembered the explosion.

Mr. Wilson refused to move. That was where he loved sitting outside with the sun on his face. That was the home he died in.

His marriage to his first wife, Bettye, ended in divorce. His second wife, Beatrice, died before him. Mr. Wilson also is survived by his other daughters, Tranita Jackson, Debra Jackson and Kellye Wilson; another son, Scott; eight grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

Visitation is from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday at Brust Funeral Home, 135 S. Main St., Lombard. Funeral services are at 11 a.m. Monday at the funeral home.