In Louise Lawler’s earliest memory of her dad, Col. James Randall, she was 4 and proudly announcing to him she had learned to spell her name.
The decorated fighter pilot and Tuskegee Airman waited for his daughter to demonstrate the new skill, then looked down and said, “That’s outstanding.”
“Those were the words I heard all my life from my dad,” Lawler said at a Thursday memorial service at Shove Memorial Chapel on the Colorado College campus in Colorado Springs. “‘That’s outstanding.’”
Randall, a “warrior in spirit and heart,” died Dec. 9 at age 93.
A father of four, Randall was a father figure to too many to count.
Because you didn’t have to be family to earn his ardent — and enduring — encouragement.
One by one, some of the people whose lives he touched took the mic to share memories of him Thursday. Stories of how he inspired their military careers and taught them to dream big, or drive a stick shift, or offered the right words at the exact moment they were most needed.
“At church we called him Brother Randall. Not out of disrespect for his rank, but because we knew him as brother,” said the Rev. Lonzie Symonette, of Payne Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Randall was a longtime member and trustee.
Randall grew up in Roanoke, Va., and as soon as he was old enough, in 1945, joined the Army Air Corps and the first black military pilots who were training at Tuskegee Army Airfield in Alabama. Pilot training was canceled after the war, and Randall was discharged and headed to college, but in 1948, a letter from the War Department lured him back into service as a member of the newly integrated Air Force. He graduated from fighter pilot school in 1950 and was deployed to Korea, where he flew 75 combat missions.
“I got lucky. There were guns all over, but I was never shot down,” Randall said in a 2013 interview with The Gazette. “I just love flying. I never wanted to do anything else.”
In Vietnam, he was part of Operation Rolling Thunder, and on Oct. 13, 1965, was shot down while flying his 44th mission, to destroy a bridge near the border. He deployed the explosives before his plane went down, ejecting and parachuting to the ground, where, despite his injuries, he managed to avoid capture and radio for help. A rescue party retrieved him, but his gear — and helmet — were gone.
Randall recuperated and ultimately moved to Colorado Springs, where he retired from the military in 1980. He never forgot about what he’d lost, though. He even considered going back to Vietnam to look for it after the war, but decided the odds of finding it were too slim.
The Vietnam vet who helped reunite him with that helmet, 48 years after it was lost, traveled from Lincoln, Neb., to attend his funeral.
The story of how the helmet found its way to Gary “Paco” Gregg and then back to its original owner, 8,000 miles and almost a half-century away, reads like a Hollywood screenplay. In 2013, it brought Gregg not only to the end of his quest but to an unexpected, and abiding, friendship.
“I’ve never known a man of such high caliber,” Gregg said, choking up as he addressed the crowd Thursday.
Randall’s youngest daughter, Patricia Rotenberg, said she believes of all her father’s many accomplishments, his “greatest rewards” were being a member of the Tuskegee Airmen and getting that helmet back.
Those achievements and moments, however, were only part of what defined him.
“My dad was a fabulous son, brother, husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather,” she said. “He lived an adventurous, wonderful, rewarding, long life. And I embrace his homecoming because he’s now resting with the Lord.”
Col. Randall’s many awards and decorations include the Congressional Gold Medal, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart, Distinguished Flying Cross, Bronze Star Medal and Meritorious Service Medal.