Now into his late 70s, retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton still feels the weight of spending his childhood living under segregation in Ridgeland, S.C.
Memories of black children studying in separate schools and adults dining in separate restaurants are still fresh on his mind decades later.
Newton, who has commanded 13 bases and tens of thousands of military personnel, likely wouldn’t be where he is today without his parents. Despite growing up on a small farm, Newton said his parents taught him to work hard to achieve his dreams.
It’s little wonder that education and self-betterment have become the cornerstone of Newton’s values, and that’s something we can all learn from.
Indeed, the opportunity to climb into his first plane, a Piper J-3 Cub, and experience what he called “total freedom” likely wouldn’t have been possible if he never had the chance to study at Tennessee State University.
Speaking with the Daily News, Newton described education – and a strong emphasis on education in our society – as the greatest equalizer of all. He holds learning in high regard, stressing the need to value and recognize our teachers, improve our schools and find innovative ways to teach, he said.
“The broader the minds of individuals .. the better the decisions they’re going to make,” he said, adding that, as a commander, if he has an educated force he’ll have a first-rate force.
Alongside self-betterment, it’s clear that Newton views sacrifice as the method for using his education to serve others.
Before retiring in 2000, ending an Air Force career of more than 34 years, Newton had flown 269 combat missions during a tour in Vietnam. Newton still remembers those flights, with gunfire all around him. At night, he said, you could look around and see nothing but explosions.
“You have to be on your best game every single time you went out to fly,” Newton said.
But even before Newton left for Vietnam, he had a choice to make. Newton left for Vietnam on April 4, 1968 – the same day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated outside his motel room in Memphis, Tenn.
“My whole world changed just in that moment,” Newton said.
The moment forced Newton to reexamine serving in Vietnam altogether. King was a personal hero to Newton at the time. Could he justify defending a country that had just killed his hero? It gave new meaning to the oath he swore: to defend the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
“It will always be in my mind a very defining moment in my life,” he told the Daily News.
Ultimately, Newton said he decided to serve his country overseas and “do everything in my power to make it even better.”
Newton would get the chance to do just that. While serving at Clark Air Base in the Philippines, Newton said he was part of a group that helped start a race relations class meant to ease racial tensions there.
After bringing different groups together in a safe space to talk, Newton said, “what we discovered was that it’s a lack knowledge that contributes so much to the problems that we’re having.”
It’s something that holds true today, he said.
“Much of the issues we still deal with when it comes to racial issues … is because we’re not talking to each other,” he said.
We believe Newton’s values, an earnest commitment to education and self-betterment, along with a passion for service, are something we should all try to emulate in our lives.
Newton will be a guest at this year’s Hangar Party on June 15, benefiting the Aviation Heritage Park. For tickets and more information, go online to aviationheritagepark.com.