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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Willis Saunders, former Boston police leader, Tuskegee Airman

Obit/print scan Willis Saunders, detective. Richard Hudson, detective and Arthur Linsky detective Boston Police Narcotics men look over $20,000 worth of drug paraphernalia after a raid on West Newton Street. slug:saunders 4/14/1963 Globe file photo Dick Fallon

Globe file/1963

Willis Saunders, shown at left during his days as detective, worked his way up the ranks of the Boston Police Department to become a deputy superintendent.

During his long career, Willis Saunders became one of the most respected members of the Boston Police Department. Those engaged in criminal activities also respected his presence, though they showed deference in a different way than his police colleagues.

John Wells was a rookie officer patrolling an area known as The Strip when he first met Mr. Saunders.

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“Any time the ladies of the night or their gentlemen associates gave me a hard time, I would go to the call box and ask for Willis Saunders to come meet me,’’ he said. “When Willis showed up, the place looked like Suffolk Downs, with the ladies and the pimps all running off at high speed. They all knew him.’’

Mr. Saunders, who served as a Tuskegee Airman in World War II and rose to become a police deputy superintendent, died of heart failure Monday in Boston Medical Center. He was 84 and lived in Roxbury.

Officers who worked with Saunders said he was a kind and thoughtful mentor who, through encouragement and example, inspired others to do their best.

“He was such a strong role model, particularly for officers of color,’’ said Bruce Holloway, a Boston police superintendent.

Conversations with Saunders, he said, left him “feeling so empowered. So many young officers today would benefit from being in Willis Saunders’s presence.’’

‘He believed in proving yourself. He always said that if you demonstrate your capabilities, then treat people with respect and dignity, eventually they’re going to see through to the person inside.’

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Willis D. Saunders Jr. was born in Boston and graduated from Boston Trade High School. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps and become one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black aviation unit in US history.

The group’s success during World War II is credited with helping desegregate the military in 1948, a stepping stone for the civil rights movement.

Discrimination in and out of the military against the Tuskegee Airmen, who flew and maintained warplanes, has been widely documented, but Mr. Saunders “didn’t think about that too much,’’ said his daughter Robbin of Canton.

“He believed in proving yourself. He always said that if you demonstrate your capabilities, then treat people with respect and dignity, eventually they’re going to see through to the person inside.’’

Mr. Saunders was cleaning airplanes at a base in Pensacola, Fla., when he was approached by a white soldier from Arlington, who’d heard he was from Roxbury.

“He liked my work ethic and put me on the crew changing tires and making sure the planes were all right. I learned to fly,’’ Mr. Saunders told the Globe in 2008.

Robbin said the white soldier “gave him his first break. That was something that was very important to him, believing in people and giving them breaks, whether they’re black or white.’’

Harvey Sanford of Dorchester also was a Tuskegee Airman, though he didn’t meet Mr. Saunders until the war was over.

Mr. Saunders, Sanford said, was “down to earth. He believed in things being right, and in people doing the right thing.’’

For his service as a Tuskegee Airman, Mr. Saunders was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

After the war, Mr. Saunders graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in electrical engineering. Subsequently, he received three degrees from Northeastern University: an associate’s degree in 1973, a bachelor’s in criminal justice in 1975, and a master’s in public administration in 1982.

“Education was so important, both to him and to my grandparents,’’ his daughter said.

Mr. Saunders’s father, an immigrant from Bimini, in the Bahamas, served in the Army in World War I.

“My mother always said if you strive hard enough, you can do anything,’’ Mr. Saunders told the Globe in 1992, when he retired. “My father always said, treat people as you want to be treated yourself.’’

After retiring, Mr. Saunders served as chief of the Boston Housing Authority police.

Mr. Saunders married Dorcas Ward of Cambridge in 1954, whom he met at a dance, shortly before joining the military. She died in 2009.

He began working for the police department in 1956 and held a variety of jobs, including beat cop, detective, and plainclothes officer, as he moved up through the ranks.

Wells recalled one cold night when he and other officers were assigned to Codman Square. Mr. Saunders, who had been promoted to deputy superintendent by then, pulled up in his car and passed out coffee to everyone, including officers he had never met.

“Everyone got a handshake and a hello’’ from Mr. Saunders, Wells said.

Along with remembering his friendly demeanor, colleagues recalled Mr. Saunders’s sense of style.

“He was dapper all right,’’ Holloway said. “What a gentleman.’’

In 1985, Mr. Saunders was named night commander for the entire city.

“He was the guy you always wanted to back you up,’’ Holloway said.

Val Williams, a retired sergeant, was Mr. Saunders’s longtime partner. He described their years working in the Combat Zone as “adventurous.’’

“We made quite a few arrests, but we helped a lot of people, too,’’ Williams said, adding that he and Mr. Saunders often worked with other departments, such as social services, to help young people who were in trouble.

“He was credible, he was honest, and he was hard-working,’’ Williams said.

For his work, Mr. Saunders was often recognized by organizations, including honors or awards from the NAACP, the Boston City Council, Metro Boston Alive, the Boston Press Photographers Association, and the Massachusetts House and Senate.

A longtime member of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, Mr. Saunders also was on the board of the John A. Shelburne Community Center in Roxbury.

“He absolutely loved Roxbury,’’ Wells said. “If you had a moment to listen, he’d talk about Roxbury all day long.’’

In addition to his daughter Robbin, Mr. Saunders leaves two other daughters, Sharon of Dorchester and Michelle of Boston; and a grandson.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow in Charles Street AME Church in Roxbury. Burial will be in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.

Robbin said that she and her sisters grew up knowing their father “was well-known and well-respected. Everywhere we went, people were always stopping us to say hello. He loved his city, and he loved protecting it. He was so proud of being a police officer.’’

Mr. Saunders also held high expectations for himself, for the officers who reported to him, and for his children.

When Robbin received a C in conduct on her first-ever report card, she was afraid to tell her father.

“I didn’t want to disappoint him,’’ she said. But when he saw the grade, “he just said, ‘That’s OK, Robbin. I know you can do better.’ ’’

From that point on, she said, she brought home no more Cs, because “I knew he had faith in me.’’

Kathleen McKenna can be reached kmck66@comast.net.

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