TREASURE ISLAND — Like a lot of young men, Michael P. DeLong got some important life advice from his father.
But unlike most men, Phillip DeLong was a Marine colonel and fighter pilot who had the distinction of being an ace in World War II and Korea.
"His father told him not to be a jet pilot, do your own thing, so he could make his own way in the world," said Michael’s wife, Kathy DeLong, 62, of Treasure Island.
And make his own way he did. After graduating from the Naval Academy in 1967, he joined the Marines. Instead of flying fighter jets, he flew helicopters. He was shot down three times in Vietnam and rose to the rank of lieutenant general, retiring in 2003 after serving as the deputy commander of U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base.
Gen. DeLong died Friday, July 27, after suffering a heart attack. He was 73.
The two met at a bar in Virginia Beach, said Kathy DeLong.
"First of all, he was very handsome," she said of what attracted her to the Marine aviator. "He was very funny. We’ve been together ever since."
It wasn’t always easy, she said. Especially after the morning of 9/11.
The couple had just returned from visiting the Middle East. Under military rules, Gen. DeLong and his boss couldn’t be gone at the same time, so as soon as they touched down, Army Gen. Tommy Franks, then the CentCom commander, took off.
General DeLong, temporarily running CentCom at its MacDill headquarters, was in the situation room for a routine morning briefing when planes started hitting buildings in New York and near Washington, D.C., and later that day a field in Pennsylvania.
Among the people he briefed about the attacks was Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his wife said.
It was one of several conversations the two had, she said, including at home, where, unlike any other resident of Treasure Island, Gen. DeLong had an office in a converted bedroom that had a red phone offering secure communications.
Rumsfeld called the house, Kathy DeLong said. So did many military leaders.
Those were difficult days, she said.
"Michael was working seven days a week, 365 days a year," she said.
DeLong didn’t talk much about his day-to-day work during that time.
Still, his wife said, it was "amazing" to have a front seat to history.
After he retired, Gen. DeLong joined the Sykes Enterprise board of directors. He was also vice-chairman of Shaw Arabia Limited and president of Shaw CentCom Services LLC and senior vice president of the Shaw Group, according to his official Sykes biography.
From 2008 to 2013, Gen. DeLong was vice president of Boeing International before being named CEO and general manager of Gulf to Gulf Contractors while still serving as a consultant to Boeing.
He was known in the community as a gregarious and generous man.
"He was way beyond a regular guy," said Ruthie Hill, owner of Chill on St. Pete Beach, where the DeLongs were regulars, stopping by three to four nights a week for the past six years.
"He was one of the nicest people I ever came across in my life," she said
Gen. DeLong, she said, was constantly asking about people’s children and parents and in-laws.
"He remembered everything about everyone," Hill said. "He was super generous with the staff."
Hill said one of Gen. DeLong’s trademarks was getting gussied up at Halloween.
"Last year, he dressed up as the Joker," she said. "It was impossible to remember that he was a Marine general. But he was the kindest, most generous, loving person I ever came across."
As of Monday evening, funeral arrangements were still being ironed out. Gen. DeLong will be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, his wife said, though no date has yet been set.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman