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Remembering Wendell Lipscomb

Tuesday May 11, 2004

According to friends and family, Berkeley’s Wendell Ralph Lipscomb was a renaissance man in the true sense of the word. A former instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen, a physician, musician, and teacher, those who knew him best said he was good at whatever he did. 

Even into his later years, Lipscomb pursued his multiple passions, most importantly his love for flying. But on Thursday, Lipscomb’s life came to an abrupt end when he tripped and fell from a center median on Shattuck Avenue and was run over by a passing truck. 

“He was a man of great generosity, a man who never complained, a man who never bragged about all of his achievements,” said Joe Lurie, a friend and executive director of the International House at UC Berkeley, where Lipscomb spent time while studying to become a doctor. Lipscomb subsequently served on the I-House board. 

“He was a real star, he was good at everything he put his mind too,” said Kathryn Raphael, one of Lipscomb’s two step-daughters.  

Born in Berkeley in 1920, Lipscomb grew up in Oakland and eventually moved to San Diego. There he developed his passion for flying by hanging around the airfields, offering to wash planes or help pilots. Some of the pilots eventually started giving Lipscomb free flying lessons and by the time he was 16, he had his pilot’s license. Even the more than his age, it was a major accomplishment for the African American Lipscomb to achieve that distinction in an era of overt anti-black racism. 

At 17, as the Spanish Civil War broke out, Lipscomb enrolled as a pilot with Americans who went to fight against the fascist troops of Francisco Franco. The planes however, never showed up so Lipscomb wasn’t able to fly. 

“He wanted to fly, he wanted to use his talents,” said Ellen Gunther, Lipscomb’s wife of nearly 40 years. “He was just a natural pilot. Even if he went a year without flying, the minute he got in the [cockpit], it was like he was in there yesterday.” 

Lipscomb’s time as a pilot was far from over though. Back in the United States during World War II, Lipscomb became an instructor for the Tuskegee Airman, the first African Americans to fly airplanes for the Army Air Corps in Alabama. After the war ended, he tried to become a commercial pilot but none of the major airlines would hire an African-American. After several tries, he did fly with British Airways for a short stint. 

His inability to fly did not hold Lipscomb back, however. He graduated from San Diego State college in 1947 and soon enrolled in medical school at UC Berkeley. When the medical school was transferred to San Francisco he went with it, graduating in 1953. After graduation, like the fictional Hawkeye and Trapper John of “M.A.S.H.”, Lipscomb spent time in Korea during the war. When he returned to the states he also returned to school, graduating with his masters in public health from the University of Michigan. 

According to his wife, Lipscomb became the first African-American doctor to do his residency at Kaiser hospital in Oakland. Back then, she said, they never asked for a picture and offered him the job because he graduated tenth in his class. She said they were noticeably surprised when he showed up. 

Lipscomb did not stop at general medicine, however, and continued to pursue other interests, serving as the supervisor of the alcoholism project for the California State Department of Public Health. He also did a residence at the Mendocino State Hospital as a psychiatrist. He continued to work as a psychiatrist in Oakland, and eventually ran his own private practice in Berkeley. 

He had just retired this past January.  

When asked if he was a work-aholic, Gunther said, “I told him I think its time to retire, and he said I’ve never quit a job in my life. That’s the definition of a work-aholic.” 

Even though he wasn’t flying professionally for most of his life, Gunther said Lipscomb could never really keep his feet firmly planted on solid ground. 

“He really loved it, the minute the airplane broke ground, he was free,” she said. She added that Lipscomb flew on his own, taught both his stepson and grandson to fly, and also participated in a program at the Oakland airport that gave flying lessons to middle school and high school students. 

The program, run by Sam Broadnax, another former Tuskegee Airman, started in 1994 and targeted African-American youth from around the Bay. 

“It’s sort of an old saying that real pilots have air in their blood,” said Broadnax about Lipscomb. “His love for flying didn’t diminish at all as his age advanced and he couldn’t fly any more.” 

Besides his love for flying, his family said he was also a talented musician, philanthropist, avid bird watcher, voracious reader, and at one point owned his own art gallery. Over the years ,he made so many friends and acquaintances (especially during his time at the I-House) that he couldn’t travel anywhere that he didn’t know someone. 

Before he died he was struggling with dialysis but, according to friends, never complained and continued to pursue his work. He also always kept a sense of humor. 

“He was an extraordinary man, a magnificent human being,” said Lurie from the I-House.