On a June day in 1991, a van bearing a band of proud teachers and students drove north from Long Island to cheer on a former Hempstead High School valedictorian, who was about to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The object of their adulation was a whippet of a cadet named Omuso George, who had left the Hempstead school four years earlier, and who was about to embark on another adventure as a newly minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
This month, George — thicker, balder, yet buoyed again by Hempstead well-wishers — took another leap forward when he was promoted to one of the top ranks in the U.S. military, brigadier general, at a Pentagon ceremony.
Since graduating from Hempstead High in 1987, George has served in Iraq, South Korea and Germany, and in 2012 was sent to Afghanistan to manage a $715 million fund to equip the Afghan military with NATO-supplied hardware and training. He's now director of operations and support in the Pentagon’s Army Budget Office. George said one of the most satisfying points of his career was when he oversaw Army recruiting on Long Island, New York City and Westchester from 2009 until 2011.
“I’m really proud I can say I graduated from Hempstead High, and came from the Hempstead school district,” George said in a telephone interview from his office in the Pentagon. “I had a wonderful support network of friends and educators and mentors who contributed to me reaching this point in my career.”
With his new rank, George joins a growing roster of Long Islanders who have become high-ranking Army officers. In 2012, for instance, when Newsday conducted an informal tally, at least 12 of the 320 active-duty generals who were then serving in the Army were from Long Island.
Maj. Gen. John G. Ferrari, a 1983 Plainview High School graduate who now serves as an adviser to the Pentagon’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said Long Island may produce as many military leaders as it has because of the region’s high concentration of military veterans and uniformed personnel, its strong public schools, and its communities of black and immigrant strivers.
“I think you can trace the values to right here — schools, sports, diversity, hardworking, tight neighborhoods — a sense that if you worked hard, you could make something of yourself,” Ferrari said during a 2012 interview. “When I went to West Point, I was much more academically prepared.”
Still, data show, George overcame formidable obstacles.
He graduated during what had been a tough stretch for Hempstead High, a school that continues to struggle today.
Twenty-nine years before George graduated, the school had been featured as a model suburban academy in a Gordon Parks photo essay for Life magazine. But by 1987, only 27 percent of that year’s entering freshman would go on to graduate on time — half the state average.
George, who at 8 moved with his mother and two brothers from Harlem to Hempstead, credits his mother's support and that of several of his teachers with helping him envision a hopeful future.
He says a ninth-grade history teacher — Darryl Stromberg — was particularly inspiring, opening him to possibilities far beyond Long Island’s environs. Stromberg had augmented a World History class he taught with vignettes gleaned during an around-the-world trip he had taken during a sabbatical a few years earlier.
“He taught me about the world around us and the world outside of Hempstead, regions of the world that I eventually set foot in as an Army officer,” George said of the now-retired Stromberg, who attended the Pentagon ceremony along with Hempstead Mayor Donald Ryan, other Hempstead dignitaries, and several friends from Hempstead’s Class of 1987.
Stromberg — who taught at Hempstead High from 1966 to 1994 and had been among those who drove to George’s 1991 West Point graduation — recalled his former pupil as a quiet and introspective student.
“He was, for lack of a better word, very dignified in class — not disruptive in an environment that was somewhat disruptive,” Stromberg said. “He was earnest in his studies, but a wonderful kid.”
“I never thought he would go to West Point — I didn’t think that was his goal,” Stromberg said. “I thought he would go to Harvard.”
George said his military career has been more of an education than he could have gotten at any of the world’s finest universities.
He said his two children learned basic German during the six years he was stationed in Germany, including three years in Heidelberg, whose namesake university was founded during the Holy Roman Empire in 1386.
He said the 31 years since he left Hempstead High have been a long, exhilarating adventure.
“To have retired as a lieutenant colonel would be a tremendous opportunity in itself,” George said, referring to his previous rank. “I’m still humbled, and I’m still taking it in.”