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John Burl Hulsey, businessman and veteran dies at 91
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John Burl Hulsey in a 2008 photo taken for a special section in The Times honoring local veterans.

John Burl Hulsey, a prominent Gainesville businessman and decorated veteran of World War II, died Thursday following an extended illness. He was 91.

Hulsey was the last surviving pilot of a top-secret Navy air unit that flew unmanned, remote-controlled drones on bombing missions. Those early flights laid the groundwork for future unmanned drones and guided missiles.

"He was one of those quiet American heroes who made a contribution to the security of our country and future defenses of our world because of his role in the advancement of technology," said U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, who honored Hulsey in 2008 with a resolution presented in the House chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The Rev. Bill Coates, pastor of First Baptist Church on Green Street, called Hulsey "one of the outstanding members of ‘the greatest generation.’"

Beyond his military service, Coates said Hulsey was a quiet leader in the church congregation.

"I wish the world were filled with people like him," he said.

Prior to entering the Navy, Hulsey was a junior at Gainesville High School when the devastating tornado struck in April 1936.

"I started running to the side entrance of the high school," Hulsey told The Times in a 2006 interview. "I ran in and went up to the third floor where my homeroom was located. I was not really thinking. When I went in the swinging door, all the windows in that room were blown out. I held onto the door. I went back into the hall and it blew me down to the second floor and I crawled under a long drinking fountain. You could see chairs and desks blowing down the hall, and about that time it was all over with."

Hulsey’s grandfather, John M. Hulsey, owned a nearby pants factory where 66 of the 100 workers were killed.

In 1938, Hulsey enrolled at North Georgia College, then a two-year institution, prior to transferring to the University of Georgia in Athens for completion of his studies. While at the University of Georgia, Hulsey participated in the university’s civilian pilot training program, where he began preparing for a career in aviation. Prior to his senior year at the university, Hulsey enlisted in the Navy, and was ordered to report for service shortly thereafter.

Hulsey was sent to Clinton, Okla., to train for a mission that would not be declassified for the next 45 years. The young pilot was selected to learn to fly drones, modified Beechcraft twin engine planes equipped to fly with one 2,000-pound or four 500-pound bombs.

Traditional bombing might destroy a transport railroad, but the damage would be repaired in a day. Flying the drones would allow a direct hit on a target.

"You had a small screen and you would just sit there and fly that plane," Hulsey said in a 2008 interview.

In 1990, prior to the first Gulf War, Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett sent a letter notifying Hulsey that the once-secret mission was declassified. Prior to that time, Hulsey had never publicly discussed his wartime role.

His wife, Mary Louise, called him "a wonderful daddy and husband," who looked at things with a positive vision.

"He never said a bad thing about anybody," she said. "He always thought good things and expected the best of people"

Hulsey would continue his service following the war, eventually entering the Naval Reserve, where he rose to the rank of lieutenant commander. He formed a successful plumbing business that is now owned by his son, John Hulsey Jr.

In addition to his son and wife, other survivors include two sons, David Hulsey of Tallahassee, Fla., and Wes Hulsey of Greenville, S.C., and a daughter, Beth Hulsey Carlson of Lafayette, La.

A daughter, Carolyn Hulsey Fernandez, died in 1998.

Funeral arrangements will be announced by Little and Davenport Funeral Home.

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