Longform

Little Big Man

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"Ed Dwight was an average pilot with an average academic background," Yeager writes. "He wasn't a bad pilot, but he wasn't exceptionally talented, either. He worked hard...but he just couldn't hack it."

In The Right Stuff, which chronicles the early days of the U.S. space program, Tom Wolfe writes that Dwight never really had a chance of getting into space. "He was being set up for a fall," says Wolfe, "because the chances of NASA accepting him as an astronaut appeared remote in any event."

Still, Dwight stuck with the training program and graduated. Although graduation qualified him to become the nation's first black astronaut, NASA did not select him. Dwight later said this was "100 percent due to the death of Kennedy."

Dwight accused those in charge of the astronaut program of racism--and sent a fifteen-page, single-spaced letter to officials in Washington, D.C., describing racial pressure directed at him during training. When his letter failed to elicit a response, Dwight, then 31, took his case to the media. He held a press conference at the Naval Ordnance Test Station in China Lake, California, where he blamed the fact that he had been turned down for astronaut training on racism. The Pentagon responded by noting that Dwight was one of many military pilots recommended, but he simply wasn't among the final few selected by NASA.

As a result of his fight, Dwight now says, he "was in the White House all the time" and "on the cover of every magazine in the U.S." Although that's an obvious exaggeration, he did rate a 1965 Ebony profile. In that piece, a source in the Defense Department said Dwight's unwillingness to accept NASA's decision hurt any future chances. "Dwight bucked the system by complaining about discrimination," said the source. "The military takes a lot of pride in its policy of 'no racial bias in the armed services.' When a guy bucks 'the system,' he's not going to find many people willing to carry the ball for him."

A close friend of Dwight's interviewed by Ebony said that "Ed had this terrific obsession about going to the moon." When he failed to achieve his goal, the friend added, Dwight's obsession turned to bitterness.

After the furor died down, Dwight was sent to a bomber test group in Ohio--an assignment considered by one aerospace graduate as "the worst possible one a guy can get." Dwight resigned from the Air Force in 1966 after fourteen years of service.

NASA records show that Guion Bluford Jr., who went into space in 1983, was the nation's first black astronaut.

Dwight's career eventually took off in other directions.
After quitting the Air Force, he worked for IBM and then moved to Denver, where he opened a chain of barbecue restaurants. When that business venture proved less than profitable, he got into real estate development. According to Ebony magazine, Dwight made a fortune building condominiums and was a millionaire by the early Seventies. But he lost virtually all of his property during a recession that hit the housing market in the mid-Seventies. It was at that point that Dwight enrolled at the University of Denver, graduating with a master's degree in fine arts in 1977, at the age of 44.

It was his career as a sculptor that would bring Dwight widespread fame and another sizable fortune. But it also led to his reputation as a tough and unrelenting taskmaster.

In his studio, dressed in dirty white coveralls, Ed Dwight is a whirl of emotions. His temperament changes almost as often as the images on the three TVs scattered around his shop--each tuned in to different daytime talk shows with the sound turned up. One moment Dwight is laughing about the ridiculous allegations leveled at him by some of his former employees. The next he flies into a rage about stolen sketchbooks that could be "worth millions when I die."

Former employees say Dwight's mood swings are partly responsible for the quick turnover in his workforce. Thompson claims he saw between thirty and forty people come and go during the time he worked for Dwight. Some, like Kathy Discoe, worked for Dwight for a few months; some lasted only a few weeks before they were fired or left. But others have weathered Dwight's stormy personality for years.

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Tony Perez-Giese