An Unassuming Coloradoan
Bill Crawford was about as humble as they get. He was born in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1918, served in the Army during World War II, and stayed in the service until 1967 when he retired.
After a couple of months of retirement, Bill grew bored and looked around his hometown of Colorado Springs for a job to keep him busy. He found work as a janitor at the United States Air Force Academy, just outside of town. Most cadets barely noticed this quiet, unassuming man who blended into the background as he silently did his job. They knew him only as the shy janitor, Mr. Crawford.
A Surprising Discovery
This all changed in 1976. Cadet James Moschgat was studying the Allied campaign in Italy when he began reading about the accomplishments of one private William Crawford. There was an old photo of Crawford in the book, and Moschgat thought he resembled the reclusive janitor. He read that private Crawford was presumed killed in action, and his father received the Medal of Honor for his son. As it turned out, Crawford had been captured by German soldiers and held prisoner for 19 months until the end of the war.
Cadet Moschgat shared his finding with fellow cadets and finally approached the janitor to ask if he was the same man in the story. Crawford simply replied, “Yep, that’s me.” The cadets asked him why he never talked about his accomplishments, and he said,
“That was one day in my life and it happened a long time ago.”
Word of Mr. Crawford’s exploits quickly spread among the cadet corps, and he was given newfound respect when they also discovered he returned from a war where he was presumed dead and voluntarily served for another 20 years. For more than four decades, William Crawford never had one ceremony recognizing his Medal of Honor. The cadets of the graduating class of 1984 decided to put an end to that. At their graduation, Crawford was invited to be an honored guest.
President Reagan was the keynote speaker at the graduation that year, and while he was there, he formally presented William Crawford with his Medal of Honor. In his remarks, the president noted some leadership lessons the newly appointed officers learned from their janitor. Many years later, these lessons were formalized and written down by the man who first discovered the hero among his fellow cadets, COL (ret) James Moschgat.
Bill Crawford, our janitor, taught me many valuable, unforgettable leadership lessons. Here are ten I’d like to share with you:
1. Be Cautious of Labels. Labels you place on people may define your relationship to them and bound their potential. Sadly, and for a long time, we labeled Bill as just a janitor, but he was so much more. Therefore, be cautious of a leader who callously says, “Hey, he’s just an Airman”. Likewise, don’t tolerate the O-1, who says, “I can’t do that, I’m just a lieutenant.”
2. Everyone Deserves Respect. Because we hung the “janitor” label on Mr. Crawford, we often wrongly treated him with less respect than others around us. He deserved much more, and not just because he was a Medal of Honor winner. Bill deserved respect because he was a janitor, walked among us, and was a part of our team.
3. Courtesy Makes a Difference. Be courteous to all around you, regardless of rank or position. Military customs, as well as common courtesies, help bond a team. When our daily words to Mr. Crawford turned from perfunctory “hellos” to heartfelt greetings, his demeanor and personality outwardly changed. It made a difference for all of us.
4. Take Time to Know Your People. Life in the military is hectic, but that’s no excuse for not knowing the people you work for and with. For years a hero walked among us at the Academy and we never knew it. Who are the heroes that walk in your midst?
5. Anyone Can Be a Hero. Mr. Crawford certainly didn’t fit anyone’s standard definition of a hero. Moreover, he was a private on the day he won his Medal. Don’t sell your people short, for any one of them may be the hero who rises to the occasion when duty calls. On the other hand, it’s easy to turn to your proven performers when the chips are down, but don’t ignore the rest of the team. Today’s rookie could and should be tomorrow’s superstar.
6. Leaders Should Be Humble. Most modern-day heroes and some leaders are anything but humble, especially if you calibrate your hero meter on today’s athletic fields. End zone celebrations and self-aggrandizement are what we’ve come to expect from sports greats. Not Mr. Crawford-he was too busy working to celebrate his past heroics. Leaders would be well-served to do the same.
7. Life Won’t Always Hand You What You Think You Deserve. We in the military work hard, and, dang it, we deserve recognition, right? However, sometimes you just have to persevere, even when accolades don’t come your way. Perhaps you weren’t nominated for junior officer or airman of the quarter as you thought you should; don’t let that stop you.
8. Don’t pursue glory; pursue excellence. Private Bill Crawford didn’t pursue glory; he did his duty and then swept floors for a living.
9. No job is beneath a Leader. If Bill Crawford, a Medal of Honor winner, could clean latrines and smile, is there a job beneath your dignity? Think about it. Pursue Excellence. No matter what task life hands you, do it well. Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If life makes you a street sweeper, be the best street sweeper you can be.” Mr. Crawford modeled that philosophy and helped make our dormitory area a home.
10. Life is a Leadership Laboratory. All too often, we look to some school or PME class to teach us about leadership when, in fact, life is a leadership laboratory. Those you meet every day will teach you enduring lessons if you just take time to stop, look and listen. I spent four years at the Air Force Academy, took dozens of classes, read hundreds of books, and met thousands of great people. I gleaned leadership skills from all of them, but one of the people I remember most is Mr. Bill Crawford and the lessons he unknowingly taught. Don’t miss your opportunity to learn.
Bill Crawford was a janitor. However, he was also a teacher, friend, role model, and one great American hero. Thanks, Mr. Crawford, for some valuable leadership lessons.
Recognition and Respects
William Crawford died on March 15, 2000, at the age of 81. Upon hearing of his passing, the Governor of Colorado ordered all state flags to be flown at half-staff. He was buried at the United States Air Force Academy Cemetary in Colorado Springs and, to date, is the only US Army enlisted soldier to be buried there.
His hometown of Pueblo honored him with a bronze statue of his likeness in Heroes Plaza.
His Medal of Honor citation reads as follows:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at risk of life above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy near Altavilla, Italy, 13 September 1943. When Company I attacked an enemy-held position on Hill 424, the 3rd Platoon, in which Pvt. Crawford was a squad scout, attacked as base platoon for the company. After reaching the crest of the hill, the platoon was pinned down by intense enemy machine-gun and small-arms fire. Locating 1 of these guns, which was dug in on a terrace on his immediate front, Pvt. Crawford, without orders and on his own initiative, moved over the hill under enemy fire to a point within a few yards of the gun emplacement and single-handedly destroyed the machine-gun and killed 3 of the crew with a hand grenade, thus enabling his platoon to continue its advance. When the platoon, after reaching the crest, was once more delayed by enemy fire, Pvt. Crawford again, in the face of intense fire, advanced directly to the front midway between 2 hostile machine-gun nests located on a higher terrace and emplaced in a small ravine. Moving first to the left, with a hand grenade he destroyed 1 gun emplacement and killed the crew; he then worked his way, under continuous fire, to the other and with 1 grenade and the use of his rifle, killed 1 enemy and forced the remainder to flee. Seizing the enemy machine gun, he fired on the withdrawing Germans and facilitated his company’s advance.
This unassuming, humble man was an American hero in every sense of the word.