Lt. Cmdr. Otis Tolbert Jr.

Times Staff Writers

Lt. Cmdr. Otis Tolbert Jr. spent his whole life honoring his father--on the football field, in the classroom and as a military man in the Navy.

His father had been a naval officer before him, one of the first black pilots to fly an A-7 jet. And it was that same kind of determination that put the 39-year-old Tolbert in the Pentagon.

He grew up in San Joaquin Valley, in the shadow of Lemoore Naval Air Station. His father, Lt. Otis Tolbert Sr., a flight instructor and company commander at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., moved the family to California in the mid 1970s.

Lemoore was a small cotton and dairy town that lived for its Friday night football. Tolbert, "Big O" to his high school coaches and teammates, was a star fullback and defensive end on a championship team. His talents took him to Cal State Fresno on a scholarship.

"He was a very good football player, but he was a lot more than that," said Dr. Jesse Liscomb, a Navy flight surgeon who lived across the street from the Tolberts. "He was a scholar and a leader by example and one of finest young men I ever knew. This isn't grief talking. He was one of this country's gems."

Tolbert wanted to follow in his father's footsteps to become a Navy pilot. But his knees didn't pass muster, so he had to take another route. He joined the Navy and helped escort battle carriers through the seas as an intelligence officer.

A promotion landed him inside the Pentagon, an 8-to-5 workday that gave him time with his wife, Sherrie, and their three children.

His father eventually retired from the Navy as a commander and became a pilot for United Airlines, working out of Chicago, Tokyo and most recently San Francisco.

He had trained scores of pilots to fly the Boeing 757 commercial jet, the same type of plane that crashed into the southwest side of the Pentagon on Tuesday morning.

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