CORTLANDT - The recent widow of a World War II Tuskegee Airman will attend president-elect Barack Obama's inauguration this month, along with several hundred men who served in the noted program.
Her husband, Albert, died of Alzheimer's disease Dec. 8 - the day before Obama invited the surviving airmen to his inauguration.
Viola Gaines talks Wednesday about her husband, Albert Gaines, who died last month - one day before getting an invitation to attend President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration.
(Ricky Flores /The Journal News)
"When he celebrated his birthday in November, he said he wanted to be there for the inauguration," said his widow, Viola Gaines, 77, of Cortlandt. "We thought when he said that, he was 'coming back,' so to speak."
Gaines was 85 when he died last month. More than 200 surviving Tuskegee Airmen have accepted the invitation to attend the inauguration; Viola Gaines will be joined there by her daughter, Deborah Yearwood, of Cortlandt.
Gaines was one of the 994 black pilots trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., during World War II. The Tuskegee Airmen included many more people than the pilots. Thousands were connected to the Tuskegee program, including mechanics, cooks and others.
Gaines' family described him as a "quiet warrior," a man who didn't talk much about his time as an airman.
"The only reason more people know about it was because I brought it up," Viola Gaines said. "He thought it was no big deal and thought he was just doing his duty to this country."
"You see that sense of humbleness among a lot of Tuskegee guys," said his stepson, Bob Baldwin, of Atlanta.
Albert and Viola Gaines married in 1991; it was his second marriage. Next week would have marked their 18th wedding anniversary.
After the war, Gaines went to Syracuse University and worked for IBM in Westchester County for almost 30 years. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2003.
His wife said she was told by Tuskegee Airmen Inc., the group coordinating the inaguration trip, that the invite wasn't for widows. But she pleaded her case to Rep. John Hall, D-Dover Plains, and his office got her a general ticket to the Jan. 20 event.
"Everyone started getting excited when they found out we were going," she said. "They'd say, 'If you shake Obama's hand, don't wash your hand. If you get close to him, get a piece of his hair for us.' "
Another Tuskegee Airman from Westchester, New Rochelle resident Lee Archer, will be attending the inauguration.