BELMONT — Alfred Station’s Wally Higgins refers to himself as an ordinary, humble, soft-spoken man and devoted husband who had the privilege of serving in the military.
Yesterday, he added “stunned and honored man” to his description.
Higgins joined the ranks of several medal-winning historical figures as a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal — the nation’s highest civilian award — presented to him during a ceremony Friday by the Allegany County Office for the Aging at its annual luncheon in Belmont.
State Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, nominated Higgins in 2012, and U.S. Rep. Tom Reed, R-Corning, presented him with the award during Friday’s function.
Higgins was granted the medal for this work with the Civil Air Patrol (C.A.P.), Reed said.
Young wasn’t present during the ceremony, but her community liaison, William Heaney, offered Young’s well-wishes and provided additional news: Higgins is going to be inducted into the State Senate’s Veterans’ Hall of Fame this year.
“I DON’T KNOW what to say. This is just amazing,” Higgins said about both honors before presenting the audience with details of the life that sparked his interest in C.A.P.
In the late 1930s, more than 150,000 volunteers with a love for aviation argued for an organization to put their planes and flying skills to use in defense of their country.
As a result of those volunteers’ actions, the C.A.P. was born one week prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he added.
“I remember reading about it when I was a child. I thought it was interesting,” he said, noting he loved crafting model airplanes and admired aviators as a child.
When World War II started, Higgins’ interest in C.A.P. reached its peak.
“It was suggested to me to join C.A.P., so I decided to check it out,” he said. “It was a fairly new group — only in its second year — but I decided, yes, this was the group for me.”
He later told the Times Herald he wished his wife, Norma — she is in a nursing home and unable to walk — could be there to see him receive the award, noting she was a huge supporter and partner in his work.
“She saw me through all of my military life and assisted in much of the volunteer work. This honor is truly amazing, but it would be even more spectacular if she was here to share it with me,” he said.
According to a biography that was given to the ceremony’s guests, Higgins was born Nov. 11, 1925, and raised on a small farm in Kendall, Orleans County. He attended Kendall Central School until he turned 18, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
His dream job was to operate aircraft, having watched the P-36 and P-40 war planes fly testing runs above his home from the Curtis-Wright factory in Buffalo.
The Army recruited Higgins on Dec. 10, 1943, before he could graduate high school.
Higgins reported to Fort Dix, N.J., and then he was sent to Biloxi, Miss., for basic training and aptitude testing. It was in the Deep South where he was exposed for the first time to racial segregation and discrimination.
As a result of his skin color and proficiencies, Higgins was selected to join the Tuskegee Airmen experiment in Alabama. He was assigned to Class 44K and trained in Pre-Flight at Tuskegee Institute.
During training, Higgins became seriously ill, and his training was delayed. After recovering, he was reassigned to Class 45A and completed his Primary Flight training, including solo runs in the P-17 Stearman. Higgins spent 11 months at Tuskegee before a downturn in the war in Europe resulted in less pilot training at Tuskegee. He was then transferred to the 1909th Aviation Engineering Battalion, and served in Saipan and Okinawa building roads, airfields and ammunition storage buildings.
Higgins was a sergeant in charge of an all-black, 30-man platoon. While in Okinawa, he was honorably discharged Dec. 5, 1945, but immediately re-enlisted Dec. 6.
On March 17, 1947, Wally received his final honorable discharge as a staff sergeant with Squadron F, 3505th Army Air Force. For his military service, Higgins earned the World War II Victory Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, American Campaign Medal and Army Good Conduct Medal.
Higgins lost his only sibling, Donald Warner Higgins, to the ravages of World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater as a Navy Seabee.
Upon returning to Kendall, Higgins completed his diploma at Jefferson High School in Rochester. Because of his interest in designing things, he applied and was accepted at the state College of Ceramics at Alfred University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in ceramic design in 1952. While a student there, he dated Norma, and they were married Aug. 18, 1951, on campus.
Higgins and his wife remained in Alfred, where they raised four children — Don, Verne, Laurie and Sharon.
Still living in Allegany County, they have been married nearly 63 years and have nine grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Higgins never left the field of industrial ceramic design. He was a model and mold-maker at Glidden Pottery in Alfred for five years, then became a technical specialist at the NYS College of Ceramics and become an associate professor there, retiring in 1985 as professor emeritus.
In addition to subsequent ceramic-related business ventures, the Higginses made many trips overseas — including Egypt, Morocco, Brazil, Sri Lanka, Israel and Zambia — teaching and providing assistance in industrial ceramic design, ceramic manufacturing equipment and model and mold-making. The couple also held several exhibitions of their custom clocks, sculptures and paintings. To this day, Higgins periodically provides consulting and assistance in his fields of expertise.
Higgins has also spent decades in public service with many organizations in Allegany County, including the Alfred Lions Club, Alfred Station Volunteer Fire Department, Allegany County Office for the Aging Advisory Council and Allegany County Senior Foundation.
Higgins is an automobile and airplane enthusiast, and he loves attending car shows and the 1941 HAG Air Show.
The World War II veteran frequently gives talks and presentations to various groups, discussing his experiences at Tuskegee, military service and exposure to racial issues.
(Contact reporter Darlene M. Donohue at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter, @DarleneMDono)