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Julius 'Dooley' Houghtaling, known for Dooley Groves and atomic energy, dies in Ruskin

RUSKIN — Julius "Dooley" Houghtaling lived by a simple creed: If you want something done correctly, do it yourself.

He built his own houses and expanded his family's farm. Though he was a high school dropout, he later got his diploma and went to college to study physics and nuclear engineering.

He became a nuclear physicist, working with the Atomic Energy Commission during the Cold War. In this later years, he served on the Hillsborough County Planning Commission.

Mr. Houghtaling, who may be the only citrus-farmer-turned-nuclear-physicist in the history of Tampa Bay, died Tuesday in a car crash on U.S. 41 S in Ruskin. He was 82.

He grew up in Sun City, a farmer's son. At age 11, he built a "glider" with tomato stakes and baling wire. His father spotted Dooley on the roof of the barn getting ready to launch.

His father talked him into abandoning the glider. Together they made a canoe instead.

A scrawny kid with a defective heart, young Mr. Houghtaling dropped out of Wimauma High School at 15 to join the merchant marine. He gorged on bananas to make the minimum weight requirement of 120 pounds.

He returned to high school at age 19 in 1946, but left again two weeks before he would have graduated. He said no one was teaching him anything.

Mr. Houghtaling worked on his father's farm, which he later expanded and ran with his son.

In 1948 he married former high school classmate Lillie Hurley of Wimauma. Without her knowledge, he built a small house and surprised her.

In his late 20s, Mr. Houghtaling got clobbered with a case of the measles. He slowed down for the first time in his life — and reflected.

"He thought maybe farming would not do the job in accomplishing what he wanted to accomplish," said his daughter, Sharon Plummer.

In defiance of his father, he took a high school equivalency test, sold two houses he had built and moved his family to Tampa.

He studied math and physics at the University of Tampa. At night he pumped gas at a Phillips 66 station, where he impressed higher-ups at Phillips Petroleum.

They kept Mr. Houghtaling employed though graduate school at the University of Idaho. He would work for Phillips and Westinghouse Corp. and became a sought-after consultant on nuclear reactors.

Away from work, he avoided television, but loved Beethoven, Mozart and Debussy. He had downloaded 19 gigabytes of classical music — enough to play for two continuous weeks — onto his computer.

Mr. Houghtaling moved back to Hillsborough County in 1973 while working for Nuclear Utilities Service Corp. He built another house, a hurricane-proof bunker with few windows.

He had led an active retirement since 1982, serving on the Hillsborough County Planning Commission and helping Dooley Groves, now headed by his son, Mike, expand to six retail stores.

He endured several heart surgeries, always worrying that he would emerge brain-damaged. "His biggest fear was losing his sound mind," said Plummer, 57.

On Tuesday, a pickup truck slammed into Mr. Houghtaling's Chevrolet as he crossed U.S. 41. His family takes solace in the fact that he died instantly.

"Things were settled," said son Julius Robert Houghtaling, 60, a violinist. "He left three happy kids and a multitude of happy grandchildren who are ready to take over the world just like he did."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at or (727) 892-2248.


Julius Edson Houghtaling

Born: Sept. 16, 1927.

Died: Oct. 6, 2009.

Survivors: Wife, Lillie; sons, Julius Robert and his wife, Debra, and David Michael and his wife, Diane; daughter, Sharon Plummer and her husband, Glenn; brothers, Vernon and his wife, Merry, and Daniel and his wife, Anna Mae; sister Winnona Shephard and her husband, Jim; nine grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.

Service: 2 p.m. today (1 p.m. visitation); National Cremation and Burial Society, 308 E College Ave., Ruskin.

Julius 'Dooley' Houghtaling, known for Dooley Groves and atomic energy, dies in Ruskin 10/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 9, 2009 1:10am]
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