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Harvey Sanford, 89; mechanic kept the Tuskegee Airmen flying

After his experience with the Tuskegee Airmen, Harvey Sanford working as a mechanic at Hanscom Air Force Base. Family handout

Harvey Sanford was fascinated with aviation since his South End boyhood in the 1930s, when his father would take him to watch planes take off and land at what they then called the East Boston airport.

“My grandmother said he would put two Popsicle sticks together and make an airplane when he was a little guy,” said his daughter, Judith Sanford-Harris of Milton.

Mr. Sanford, who was 89 when he died in his sleep Tuesday in a Dorchester nursing home, began working as a mechanic at what is now Logan International Airport while still a teenager at Boston Trade High School. He worked there until he was drafted during World War II.

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Sent to Moton Field in Tuskegee, Ala., he became an inspector for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, examining each aircraft and its engine after every 25 hours in the air. “You had cadets flying 24 hours a day,” he recalled in a 2009 oral history interview for the Lower Roxbury Black History Project.

Trained to fly himself, Mr. Sanford often took to the sky with a test pilot after he finished inspecting an aircraft to make sure the plane and pilot passed muster. “I got flight pay for it, anyhow, so I didn’t mind,” he quipped.

In March, the Black History Breakfast at the Colonnade Hotel paid tribute to Mr. Sanford and the five other living Tuskegee Airmen from the New England area.

Two decades ago, he was recognized as having been the youngest African-American maintenance inspector to take part in the advanced training group at Tuskegee. In 2007, he was among those who traveled to Washington, D.C., when President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen, honoring them for their service.

Though Mr. Sanford’s expertise and work were respected during the war, he and other African-Americans in the military endured the indignities of racism at nearly every turn.

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Traveling to military postings in the South, Mr. Sanford learned that once his train crossed the Mason-Dixon Line, blacks had to sit in the front cars right behind the locomotive, where smoke and soot blew into the open windows.

While stationed in Alabama, Mr. Sanford’s duties included flying his commanding officer north once a month to Washington, D.C. While his major was in meetings, Mr. Sanford went to visit relatives in Annapolis, Md., and upon returning to the airfield would find that even his plane had been segregated.

“They would take me way to the outskirts of the field, and it’s like that plane was going to contaminate the rest of them,” he said in the oral history. “Overnight they would tow it out there and park it.”

When telling stories of what he had faced, Mr. Sanford “could shrug things off, but they bothered him some,” his daughter said. “You knew they did.”

Harvey Sanford (right) joined fellow Tuskegee airman Jack Bryant at a Boston ceremony honoring their service.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/File 2013/Globe Staff

Born on Hammond Street in the South End in 1926, Mr. Sanford was the only child of Oswald Sanford and the former Georgianna Jones. His mother was a presser in Boston’s garment district. His father had been born in Mashpee, of Wampanoag and African-American ancestry, and was a mechanic at a garage in Cambridge, a job that introduced young Mr. Sanford to the nuances of racism.

Oswald was “very fair,” Mr. Sanford’s daughter said, “and most of the customers thought he was Italian. If they had known he was black and Native, they wouldn’t have let him work on their cars.”

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“My father was always repairing automobiles and that’s what kept us going,” Mr. Sanford said in the oral history, recalling that his family didn’t experience significant economic hardship during the Great Depression.

When Mr. Sanford was a boy, aircraft sometimes would fly overhead going to or from what is now Logan Airport, and “I’d sit there, I used to say, ‘A plane! A plane!’ ” On weekends, he added in the oral history, his father would take him to the airport and also let him help out working on cars, “so everything just kept, you know, gelling together.”

Still, a guidance counselor in his earlier school years tried to discourage Mr. Sanford from going to Boston Trade High to study aviation mechanics and instead wanted to steer him toward carpentry or sheet metal labor. Mr. Sanford persevered.

“They tried to keep you where they wanted you to go,” he said. “If you escaped you were really lucky.”

He graduated in 1944 and part of his escape was working as an aircraft mechanic his senior year of high school and serving soon after at Moton Field. He was a sergeant when he left Alabama after the war ended.

From there he went to Fort Devens as an aircraft mechanic for the National Guard, and during the Korean War he maintained aircraft for the National Guard in Wisconsin and West Germany. Upon returning home, he worked in research and development at Hanscom Air Force Base before spending the end of his career as an FAA airworthiness inspector at Logan and as a consultant.

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In 1950, he married Alice E. Taylor, whom he had met when they were neighbors in the South End.

“He met my mother when they were 12 and I don’t think they ever dated anybody else,” said their daughter, a former vice president for student affairs at Bunker Hill Community College who is now a student development counselor for the Boston Public Schools.

“Daddy would sit out on her front steps after he finished his homework and would wait for her to finish and come outside,” she said. “My uncles would tease him and his other friends would tease him, but he didn’t care.”

Mrs. Sanford, who was one of the first two African-American students admitted to Wheaton College, formerly was a longtime teacher and school psychologist for the Boston Public Schools.

In retirement, Mr. Sanford was the principal baby-sitter for his two granddaughters, Stacey and Stephanie.

“He would do anything for them. He was happiest when he was holding them,” Mr. Sanford’s daughter said. “He loved babies, any babies. My mother used to say he was the only one who could get my colicky cousin to go to sleep.”

She added that her father “was happy I got married, but he was more interested in grandchildren, so when my daughters were born, he was in seventh heaven.”

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In addition to his wife, daughter, and granddaughters, Mr. Sanford leaves his son-in-law, Joseph Harris, a Boston police deputy superintendent.

A funeral service will be held at 11 a.m. Wednesday in Davis Funeral Home on Walnut Avenue in Roxbury.

Mr. Sanford was so enamored of aircraft that he worked on restoring planes after he retired, but his mechanical abilities were wide-ranging.

“He could fix anything, so anytime anybody had a problem with their car — back when you could actually work on cars — or if anyone had a problem with their house, electrical or plumbing, he got the call and he went over to fix it,” his daughter said. “He was always just really quiet and very gentle and never said no to anybody.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.