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Saturday, February 27, 2021

Fletcher Wiley takes stairsteps to Air Force honor

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Don’t confuse Fletcher Wiley with someone who’s going to deflect every compliment that comes his way. He’ll tell you what he’s done in a modest, straight-to-the-point way.

Wiley was part of a gifted and talented program at Shortridge High School, where he graduated in 1960. He was the first African American from Indiana appointed to a military academy when he joined the Air Force Academy, and he was the school’s first African American football player.

Wiley, 77, received the Distinguished Graduate Award from the academy’s Association of Graduates in 2019, an honor reserved for those graduates who set themselves apart through contributions to their community.

“Each one of those stairsteps along the way were a personal accomplishment and personal achievement,” he said.

Wiley, who lives in the Boston area with his wife, Benaree, was raised in Indianapolis by his grandmother, a registered nurse at Crispus Attucks High School. Wiley had the academic chops to make something of himself without the Air Force, but his life probably would have never happened the way it did without his grandmother, Florence Norton.

She’s the one who grabbed Wiley’s Air Force Academy rejection letter out of the trash when he was in high school and saw it included an invitation to join the academy’s prep school for a year instead. She’s the one who called a Tuskegee Airman to answer Wiley’s questions about the opportunity.

Wiley hadn’t even heard of the prep school, but his grandmother thought it sounded like a good deal.

“She was sure enough right,” he said.

Wiley attended the prep school for a year and played on the football team, earning the nickname “Flash” as a running back, wide receiver and defensive back. He graduated in 1961 and went to the academy the same year.

Betty Shaw, Wiley’s cousin by marriage, is seven years older than Wiley and remembered him as an “extra, extra, extra smart” boy in his teen years — though she can’t say that without joking about him also being a “spoiled brat.”

Shaw’s brother, Harry Brooks, was in the Army and was also the first African American general from Indiana.

“These Black people that establish themselves with things like that, you have to be proud of it,” she said.

The academy planned a ceremony for Wiley and the four other Distinguished Graduate Award honorees from 2019 in April 2020, but it had to be postponed because of the pandemic. Wiley, who recently received his first round of the COVID-19 vaccine, said the tentative plan is to have the ceremony in April.

Even if that doesn’t happen, Wiley will have plenty to keep him busy. He has two degrees from Harvard University — including a doctorate from the law school — and is still a practicing attorney, though he said he’s been “winding down” in his later years.

Wiley has also been active in civic leadership. He founded and chaired the Minority Business Development Commission in Massachusetts in 1984 and was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Bostonians in 2010. Former President Barack Obama appointed Wiley to the Board of Visitors to the U.S. Air Force Academy in 2012.

Wiley’s daughter, B.J. Wiley-Williams, said one of the most impressive things about her father is how he’s comfortable making himself available to family, work and everything else in his life.

“Not so many people are as generous as he is with his time and relationships,” she said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

A previous version of this article identified Harry Brooks as Betty Shaw’s cousin, but he was actually her brother.

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