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A Life Lived on the Front Line

Henry McPeak describes himself as a man who has lived much of his life “on the front line.” As a child growing up in western New York, McPeak was mostly oblivious to two facts of life that should have defined him, but didn’t.

“I was a black child growing up in the Great Depression who knew neither racism, nor how it felt to be hungry and go without,” said McPeak, who today makes his home at Carillon Assisted Living of Durham. “My family lived very well, thanks to my father’s job working for a well-to-do family, and in our town of Olean, New York, black and white children played together without a second thought.”

McPeak left his idyllic childhood behind in 1943 to serve his country as a Tuskegee Airmen, the now-legendary group that became the nation’s first African-American military pilots. He arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi for cadet training school, and right away was greeted by harsh realities and life lessons he was ill prepared for.

What are you? His fellow soldiers – white and black, asked at every turn. The confusion stemmed from McPeak’s multi-cultural background. The mix of African, Native-American, Swiss and Amish ancestry he’d always been so proud of now meant he didn’t quite fit in with anyone. Six months later, a spike in his blood pressure on routine tests prompted a transfer. His dream of being a Tuskegee pilot was over. McPeak was more than disappointed; he was devastated.

“I was a 19-year-old kid that was fit, healthy, skinny like I don’t know what, and they were telling me I had high blood pressure,” he recalls. “A family friend who was a doctor theorized that it was the stress. I think he was right. I was in an environment that I was not used to, eating food that I was not brought up on, being treated in a way that I never had. It was hard, to say the least.”

Fortunately, McPeak had his wits and determination to fall back on. He received valuable training from the Army Air Corps during the time he had left in his service, which enabled him to enroll in college after the war. An engineering degree led to a 10-year career at General Electric, and eventually to a 25-year career running a laboratory at Cornell University. There, he played a part in the development of several groundbreaking inventions and scientific discoveries.

He is especially proud that his lab created the equipment that was used by a Nobel Prize winning team whose work advanced the theory of “absolute zero,” and the understanding of how particles move at the lowest possible temperature on the thermodynamic scale.

But what he is most proud of is the dual job he held at Cornell, as head of a 5,600-bed dormitory; the perfect job, as it turned out, for an engineer who is highly structured and keen on principle.

He and his wife raised their two daughters in Ithaca, New York. McPeak retired and moved West, to Scottsdale, Ariz., and then to Palm Springs, Calif. After McPeak’s wife, Martha, died in 2008, he decided to follow one of his daughters back East, eventually making his way to Durham.  He is exceedingly proud of his girls, both of whom are successful in their own right, and says his greatest joy in life these days is to spend time with his grandson.

The significance of having been part of a difficult chapter in American history is not lost on him. And though he is proud of the sacrifice he and other service men and women of color made toward integrating the armed forces, the harsh lessons learned all those years ago by a once-lucky young man still seem fresh.

“The thing is, I volunteered to lay down my life for a country that didn’t want me,” says McPeak. “You learn to live with that, but you never really get over it.”



Posted in Sage Stories on June 16, 2015

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