Dr. Granville Coggs, 88, San Antonio, Texas
“I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” – From Invictus by William Ernest Henry
When he thinks back over an eventful life, Dr. Granville Coggs is both astonished and gratified at the path he has taken and the things he has accomplished. Growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in a time when society told him what he couldn’t do and how he wasn’t good enough because of his race, Granville benefited from having a strong family that taught him to endure, persevere and to go beyond what was expected of him in order to break through barriers and be successful. His father, a son of slaves, founded a boys’ reformatory and orphanage and served as president of Arkansas Baptist College. His mother pushed her children to become educated.
When America went to war, second class citizens were suddenly good enough to join the fight. Young Granville knew that he had a better chance to survive by acting before he could be drafted into infantry duty. He applied to join a new Army Air Corps program in Alabama that was training African American men to fly and maintain combat aircraft. Granville had the wits and confidence to make the grade and became one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen. He earned his wings as a bombardier and pilot in 1945, and fortunately did not have to put his skills to the test as the war ended.
His postwar flight path traveled through the University of Nebraska and then to Harvard Medical School on the wings of a scholarship. In 1953 Dr. Granville Coggs emerged as a practitioner in the growing field of radiology. He eventually became a professor at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio. From 2004 to 2008, he worked as a civilian physician at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, specializing in reading mammograms.
For diversions, “Granny” enjoys playing the gutbucket (a stringed instrument made from a broomstick and a tin wash tub) and singing in a men’s choir. He’s most proud of his late career as a senior athlete, winning medals in the Texas Senior Games and competing in track at the National Senior Games since 1999. He knows he is a role model for others but is quick to credit his wife Maud for prodding him to exercise regularly and for extending the length and quality of his life. Without his fitness and athletic pursuits, he likely would not have seen the day when he joined other surviving Tuskegee Airmen to sit on the stage as invited guests for President Obama’s historic 2009 Inauguration. For this Personal Best athlete, winning medals is the least of his rewards for following his parents’ guidance.
The story of your life is impressive. You don’t seem to have let anything get in the way of your goals and ambitions.
When people ask what single factor I ascribe for my success, I tell them my biggest achievement was selecting my parents. That’s true. I’m blessed to have had those parents and those four older siblings. They all have made their own achievements in life. I think this is the bottom line. If you don’t want Granville to do something, just tell him he can’t do it and then get out of the way while he does it.
The challenges of growing up in the South during the days of the Jim Crow Laws must have been a big factor in shaping your determined spirit.
It’s hard to comprehend but it was reality. What my parents and family told me was this: If you want to get ahead, you have to do better than the other white folks. You can’t just do as well, you have to do better. And that’s still in my bones. I never tried to prove I was superior to somebody, just that I was as good as everybody else.
I’m a persistent and goal directed person. So that’s how I have achieved. And it’s a day to day thing.
We Googled your name and found a Youtube video featuring you reciting the poem “Invictus,” which inspired the title of the movie about Nelson Mandela. Were you inspired by that movie?
Let me tell you what the inspiration for that was. The date was July 18 of last year. It was Nelson Mandela’s birthday and he was quite ill that day. The TV news had Morgan Freeman on and he recited “Invictus” and I decided I should memorize it. I’ve been reciting it at least once a day since. My practical reason is this: In the past two years or so I have lost a lot of short term memory and this proves to me that my 88 year old brain has a functional memory. So I now daily recite that along with the Gettysburg Address, which is fan-tastic.
You know, I now have 17 sons. They are not biological sons but these are people who show me the respect they would show their father. So Roddray Walker, who is Son Number Four, put that up on Youtube for me. I don’t know how to do it. Oh yes, the one I’m most proud of the 20 minute piece that includes me being interviewed by Robin Roberts on ABC TV the day of President Obama’s first inauguration. It also shows me winning three medals in one afternoon at the Senior Games in San Antonio and me playing the gutbucket.
How did you become a Tuskegee Airman?
Let me cut right to the chase. I was 18 in college and I was told by my draft board I was going to be drafted soon. I felt that I would wind up in the infantry and get killed, and that I would be better off if I could volunteer to get into this new option for Blacks to be aviation cadets. I had to pass some tough tests that others didn’t. That’s how I got in.
It’s a great legacy. There are 50 chapters of the Tuskegee Airmen organization around the country. Anyone can become a member of the group by simply paying dues. One of the goals is to maintain the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen and to encourage youngsters today. There were 996 Black pilots who originally went through the training, and there are less than 50 of us left today. The San Antonio chapter meets the first Wednesday of each month at Randolph Air Force Base. In San Antonio there were five original members, and one has died. There’s two that are five years older than me.
You must have been quite an athlete as a youth.
No. Nooo. In high school while everybody else was playing basketball and football I was playing flute and piccolo in the band. Now my wife Maud was a scholar athlete. In fact, she ran varsity track and was a member of the Tuskegee Institute women’s basketball team that were 1946 national champions. But she certainly did not marry an athlete.
So when did you get serious about fitness?
Here’s how all of this happened. I had a diagnosis of narcolepsy, which is chronic sleep deprivation. In 1994 I got a job as a Locum Tenens Radiologist. I traveled around different places in Texas where they didn’t have someone to read mammograms. I started to commute daily 100 miles each way to Carizzo Springs, Texas. But I would tend to fall asleep while driving. I learned that if I began to feel drowsy I would pull over once or twice each way and take a quick nap. That would restore me. I have a fast charging battery. That’s probably why I’m still here to talk to you today.
So Maud, with her athletic background, believed that if I would get fit I probably wouldn’t fall asleep like that. So she became my coach. She would get up with me at 3 o’clock in the morning and run with me through the neighborhood. (I’m an owl you know. I’ll get up and write in the middle of the night.) But Maud knows she’s better off if I’m alive.
Now my real mentor is Kenneth Cooper. He wrote the book “Aerobics” and it guided me. Aerobics is basically exercising all four limbs enough that it makes you sweat. He felt that if you could run a mile in under 8 minutes you would be fit. By training every day I found I could do that. Along with it goes healthy diet and good mental attitude, social interaction, all of those things. The bottom line was that his aerobic activity every day would prolong your life. So you are talking to an 88 year young healthy person. In fact I have a tee shirt that says “Sweat Often – Live Longer.”
How did you start running in competition?
Another younger fellow that was running with me on the track at the University of Texas Health Science Center said “You ought to run in the National Senior Games.” So 1997 was the first time I ran in the San Antonio Senior Games track meets at the age of 77. I ran the 1500 meters – that’s just short of a mile – and I won a Gold medal. That was the beginning of my competitive career…and I’m still doing it 17 years later! (Laughs)
So, how did you do in Cleveland last year?
(Chuckles) Well, I was registered for the 400 meter race. But I overslept and missed it.
Oh yes. (Sheepish laugh) When I got there it was all over. But they let me run in the new 50 meter race. That was my first time running that distance. I came in last, of course. I’m a longer distance runner.
The photo we took of you in Cleveland makes it look like you were tiptoeing over the line.
No, I was finishing. Part of my finish is to raise up my arms.
Well, you’ve won a lot of medals in Senior Games so we’ll forgive you and look for you to show up on time in 2015.
I have not counted the medals, it really does not matter. My main goal is to stay healthy. What I now wear is my Congressional Gold Medal given to all of the Tuskegee Airmen and one of my Gold Medals earned at the Texas games last year.
I also enjoy the people I meet at these games. I have a special friend I got to see this past year who lives in Cleveland.
Dr. Jerry Liebman was my gross anatomy laboratory partner at Harvard Medical School. In fact, my first Kosher meal was with Jerry at his home in Brooklyn back in 1949.
For the next round, I’m sure I will be qualifying in the Texas Senior Games in San Antonio to go to Nationals. I’m running in the 85 to 89 age group and there’s not too many of us at that level. But my problem of late is financial. That’s hard to say about a Harvard Medical School graduate who had a successful career. I hope I have the cash flow to get to Minneapolis. I stayed in the dormitory in Cleveland and that was pretty economical. I imagine they will have similar options for poor athletes like me. And when I say that, I mean financially poor.
Something tells us you will find a way. How do you keep yourself in shape now? And do you have any special training practices before you race?
Here’s what this current 88 year young fellow should do: I should be in bed sleeping for six hours. I think four maybe five hours a night is all I would ever get in medical school. And that’s still what I’m inclined to get with my body rhythms. And diet is very important.
Then there are three things I try to participate in daily: I bicycle here in the neighborhood, that’s about two miles. And then I stretch. I don’t have any problems with hamstrings because I stretch before walking and running. And then I swim. And then while I’m swimming I’ll recite the Gettysburg Address and Invictus. I hope those are the last things that go from my memory.
If you do this daily, you don’t have to train for these races. My book describes in detail what I do daily. It’s called “Soaring Inspiration: The Journey of An Original Tuskegee Airman.” My daughter wrote the last two chapters, and they are the best part of it.
You took your wife’s advice and got yourself moving to improve your quality of life. What would you say to motivate others who are less active as you once were?
It is very hard to move somebody. It must come from inside that person. Most people know what they are supposed to do for healthy living. All that I can say is that if I can do it, you can do it. I’m not a special creation. I’m just one of God’s children.