My friend Tom Ragin has died. I met him seven years ago, almost as soon as I moved back to Alton, at a YWCA Legacy celebration, at the Jacoby Arts Center. I was proud to have written parts of the program and direct it. I interviewed civil rights pioneer Josephine Beckwith for the event, which would lead to me writing a book, and also that night I met the affable Mr. Raglin, who was sitting in the front row.
Jim Killion, when I interviewed him for my book, told me there were “bricklayers and brick throwers” in the Alton civil rights days. His father, James Killion, and Mr. Raglin, among others, were definitely “brick layers,” calm forces for change in a time when most Alton stores and restaurants refused to serve Blacks, and the KKK (one of their first headquarters was the now Main Street Methodist Church) was active in anti-Black activities, including cross burnings.
Tom Raglin was born in Danville. He held a BA in Industrial Education and an MA in School Administration. He was obsessed with flight, and he became the first African American aircraft mechanic for the 126th Refueling group at Chicago’s O’Hare Field. In his own words: “The U. S. Army introduced me to Aircraft Mechanics through their Helicopter Maintenance Program… I became employed with McDonnell Aircraft Company in S. Louis… I helped build the following aircraft: F-N2, F-101A and B, F-4 Phantom II and the Gemini Space Capsule.” He also was director of maintenance for the Chicago Suburban Transit Authority.
In Alton, Tom worked in the school district as an instructor in vocational training—engine repair, aviation flying and sketch drafting among other subjects. In 1997, he brought the Air Force ROTC program to Alton High School.
Mr. Raglin’s flight obsession led him to become an adjunct member of the Illinois Dodo chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, the very same chapter which dubbed me an ‘honorary Black man,’ for my decade of work. In Alton, Mr. Raglin heard about Jerseyville’s “Cisco Kids,” George and Arnold Cisco, brother pilots in the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, and he wrote an essay about them. He learned that I had been a researcher/interviewer for the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project, and he read my pieces about the Cisco boys in The Telegraph, and a friendship was born.
It was Tom who came up with the idea of having a statue of the great Miles Davis placed in Alton, organizing a committee at the Museum of History & Art. A separate committee followed through on Tom’s idea, causing some bad feelings among African Americans which linger to this day. He became the first chairman of the Miles Davis Jazz Festival, an event at which I saw him for several years.
I have told you what the man did. I have not mentioned his character. Tom was loving, generous, respectful of his students, a Renaissance man and curious to a fault, a friend and, dare I say it, a father figure to me. Sadly, the past two years, Tom’s memory faded. It was hard to watch such a vibrant man in decline.
Tom, pardon my metaphor, you are flying free and you are with your Cisco kids in the Wild Blue Yonder, and I imagine all you guys are talking about plane engines, as my Tuskegee Airmen brothers would do when I attempted to mine the facts of their lives. And like those fierce men, you acted as an American and expected and received your rights, race be damned. (TA Colonel “Wild Bill” Thompson to me: “Do not talk about civil rights; we are officers and gentlemen.”) Alton is the better for your service, and I am so lucky and honored to have known you.