Although he was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the historic squadron of African-American fighter pilots in World War II, John “Jack” Lyle was never one to boast.
The South Side native led a fulfilling life that also included various inventions and extensive sailing on Lake Michigan, but he always maintained his humility.
Lyle’s loved ones are now mourning his death but calling his long life of 98 years a blessing.
An Auburn Gresham resident who received local honors in recent years, Lyle died peacefully on Jan. 5 after battling prostate cancer.
His wife of more than three decades, Eunice Jackson-Lyle, called him “such a gentleman and a scholar” who never talked about his war experience.
“He didn’t feel that he did anything extraordinary,” she said. “It was just a job he had.”
Lyle was among the Tuskegee Airmen in 2007 to receive a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor a civilian can be awarded, from President George W. Bush.
He and other World War II veterans also led the 2015 Memorial Day Parade that marched down Longwood Drive after the annual Ridge Run, and last April, he was part of a book signing at Bookie’s bookstore in Beverly that celebrated “Tuskegee Airman Jack Lyle: Captain of his Fate,” by A.K. Morris.
In discussing the book with The Beverly Review last year, Lyle said he considered himself “an ordinary person” who “liked the adventure” of being a Tuskegee Airman.
He shot down an enemy fighter during the war while flying “Natalie,” a plane he named after his first wife, and he said he often asked himself during his service what exactly he was doing in the middle of a war. He flew missions in Italy, southern Austria and southern Germany.
After he was honorably discharged, Lyle attended the University of Illinois and Roosevelt University. His career included work with Chicago Tree Service and as a Chicago Park District police officer.
Lyle, an only child, was married several times, but he never had children. He and Jackson-Lyle, who is about 20 years younger, spent the last 37 years together, with Lyle becoming a father figure to her two children and stepchild.
The couple, who shared a Nov. 7 birthday, met when Jackson-Lyle needed a tree removed.
Despite their many years together, they still loved to playfully tease each other.
“We never argued or disagreed,” Jackson-Lyle said. “We always had a lovely life together. Everything we decided on, we decided on together.”
Lyle was so low-key about his war experience, his wife said, that she doesn’t recall when she learned he was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Lyle enrolled in 1943 at Tuskegee University in Alabama, a segregated facility that trained African-American pilots. He experienced racism after he returned from the war. His mother, Ernestine, was stunned when she saw him downtown washing windows. She wondered how an American war hero could be relegated to such a menial job.
When she asked why, Lyle’s answer was simple: he had to eat.
That practicality continued as he grew older, Jackson-Lyle said, and her husband was a calming force.
“He taught me just to be an honorable person by his behavior,” she said.
Lyle graduated from Englewood High School, and he began his love of being on the water as a child, he told The Beverly Review, while playing with sailboats in the bathtub and visiting the Washington Park lagoon.
He sailed out of Jackson Park Yacht Club, 6400 S. Promontory Dr., and competed in races, and he was still sailing in recent years, quickly packing up his gear whenever friends called with an invitation to sail.
Jackson-Lyle joined him, and he became her captain of sorts.
“He would explain to me what to do and what not to do,” she said. “If you stand up, you might get hit by the boom. There’s so many things you had to watch out for.”
Lyle and Jim Lett, of Beverly, were partners in owning a sailboat called “Nightwatch” for about 20 years. Lett read an article in The Beverly Review about Lyle’s search for a partner on his 30-foot boat, and while Lett held off after the initial phone call, a year later, he found the article in his wallet and called again.
Lyle still needed a partner, and he invited Lett out for a sail.
“The rest is history,” Lett said.
The two sailed together last summer, and Lett visited Lyle the day before he died, when they discussed future plans to enjoy Lake Michigan.
“He sailed with anyone who was out there,” Lett said. “Everyone … was willing to take him out. He was racing a couple years ago.”
Lett agreed that Lyle rarely spoke about his war experiences, but Lett recalled a moment when the two joined other veterans to visit the Air Zoo, an aviation museum in Kalamazoo, Mich.
The curator asked the veterans if there was a particular exhibit they wanted to see, and Lyle inquired about a German plane he fought in battle.
When the curator asked if he knew the model of the aircraft, Lyle couldn’t recall, Lett said, but the airman displayed his typical sense of humor.
“I don’t know,” Lyle said. “It was shooting at me the last time I saw it.”
Lyle’s inventions included “Tuck ’Ems,” loincloths for men that he said enhanced fertility, and the “exerball” to use while exercising. He had a basement gym that he still used regularly in his latter years, and he also enjoyed riding motorcycles and horses.
Lett said Lyle wanted to stay mentally active and, as a right-hander, he learned to write left-handed. He also liked to write words backwards so that the reader needed a mirror to read the message.
In Lyle’s final days, a hospice worker asked if he had any last wishes. Seeing Lake Michigan one last time was his request, but he died three days before an ambulance was scheduled to take him.
Jackson-Lyle said her husband was not in pain when he died. He fell asleep in bed, she said, and waited until she left the room before passing away.
As she put it, the heroic pilot bid a graceful farewell.
“He just dropped out of formation.”
She plans to spread Lyle’s ashes in Lake Michigan.
Services have not been finalized, but Jackson-Lyle hopes to host a gathering at Jackson Park Yacht Club for a champagne toast to her husband.