PATERSON, NJ – Gerald “Jerry” Gemian was disappointed when he watched the movies “Red Tails” and “Tuskegee Airmen” about the barrier-breaking African-American pilots who heroically fought in World War II.
Gemian thought the films were missing something or, more precisely, someone. Gemian’s old Paterson buddy, Walter “George” Kyle had been among the Tuskegee heroes. An Eastside High graduate, Kyle was wounded and lost his leg as a result. Gemian figured people in North Jersey should know about his exploits.
Gemian wrote a “letter to the editor” of The Record of Hackensack regarding the lack of recognition if his friend and comrade, who passed away in 2000. A William Paterson University professor, Anthony LeFemina, read the letter and decided to rectify the situation. Those efforts culminated in a ceremony on Monday at Paterson’s International High School attended by Kyle’s family members during which Rep. Bill Pascrell presented a congressional commemoration in the airman’s honor.
“We were opposite in color, physical structure and we had different styles,’’ recalled Gemian, who graduated from Paterson’s old Central High. “It did not stop us from being fast friends.”
Gemian told the audience about a moment from his younger days: “I remember it was a really hot summer day and my feet were really hot. I look over at George and he is laughing. There was a reason my feet were hot. The (car’s) floor boards were on fire.”
While speaking to the crowd about his friend, Gemian became overwhelmed with emotion and was helped to his seat.
Students at the high school were impressed by Kyle’s life and triumphs.
“He inspires me to do more,’’ said student Jamire Grant. “He came from the same place I come from, he’s from Paterson, and for him to be a Tuskegee Airman means a lot to me. He accomplished everything he went for.’’
“It inspired me to never give up” stated student Marisol Serreras. “I respect what they (military personnel) do for us to protect our country.”
“It inspired me to better myself to work for my community,’’ said student Julissa Castillo, “to represent my community and be a better person. I did not know about his life, so to learn that this person did all of this stuff…it really makes me feel proud.”
It was Gemian’s pride in his friend that triggered the event. But none of it would have happened without the passionate intervention of a stranger, LeFemina.
A professor in residence at WPU’s Ridgewood campus, LeFemina read Gemian’s letter about Kyle in the newspaper and found the deceased hero’s family members in Ohio and they agreed to come to Paterson for the ceremony.
Donald Curtis, a relative of Kyle, said, “He had one leg but it did not stop him. He did not give up. That is truly an inspiration.”