When Jack McMullen took a bullet to the leg in World War II, he recuperated in an Army hospital, then headed back to his unit, the 101st Airborne paratroopers — the famous Screaming Eagles.
Once, he saw a fiery plane coming right toward him. The craft flew just over his head and crashed. Everyone on board died.
He jumped into Normandy on D-Day and into Holland in Operation Market Garden.
Mr. McMullen survived World War II, though he was sent home afterward because of a knee injury he got in a football game.
"He was just lucky, very lucky," his wife of 62 years, Rhoda, says today. "A lot of them weren't."
Once back home in Largo, Mr. McMullen met his wife-to-be, had five children and became one of the most respected dairy farmers in Florida. He is in the Florida Dairy Hall of Fame.
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A descendant of the McMullen family that settled Pinellas County in the 1840s, Mr. McMullen knew just about everyone in the family, which now numbers well into the hundreds.
When his oldest son, John, would meet another McMullen who he didn't know, he'd call his father.
"I could go to him about any relative," says John, 60, who followed his father into agriculture and runs a wholesale nursery business in Hillsborough County.
Mr. McMullen also seemed to know everyone in Tampa Bay. John recalls being with his father at a Largo High School football game. Everyone, it seemed, sought the grip of Mr. McMullen's firm handshake.
"It seemed he knew the whole stadium," John says.
Mr. McMullen's father was a county engineer and onetime mayor of Largo.
Mr. McMullen grew up in a house with a soapberry tree in the back yard. He fell out of it and broke his arm when he was in the first grade. Six decades later, Largo would save the house from demolition because of its historic significance.
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Mr. McMullen began college at the University of Florida in the fall of 1942, but soon enlisted.
"He knew the real Private Ryan, the one that Spielberg based the movie on," John says. "He was in his platoon. I asked him was it really like the movie and he said no, the chaplain just came to him and said 'you're going home.' "
When Mr. McMullen returned home, his mother asked him to speak at the Largo Women's Club. He went in his uniform. Later that night, he went to a party and met Rhoda.
"He was just a very, very wonderful fella — just a very nice fella," Rhoda recalls. "When I first met him, he was in full dress uniform, and he was very impressive."
They had their first date the next day and married four months later. Mr. McMullen returned to school and graduated with a degree in agriculture.
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Back then, Pinellas County was largely orange groves and cow pastures. Mr. McMullen began dairy farming in Pinellas in 1952, but later sold the land and moved the business to Hillsborough County. He farmed 650 acres and milked 500 cows.
He retired in the late 1980s. He spent his free time golfing and traveling with Rhoda. They spent summers in Scotland, where the original McMullen came from. Mr. McMullen hit all the good golf courses, including St. Andrews.
On several occasions, Mr. McMullen visited Europe to retrace his steps during the war. He brought along his wife or his children. Some of those visits became emotional.
"He said the real heroes are still over there," John says.
John says he can't ever remember his father being sick until his later years, when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease.
John L. "Jack" McMullen died Tuesday, July 8, 2008. He was 84.
Not long before, Mr. McMullen's grandson returned from fighting in Afghanistan. Coincidentally, the unit that replaced him was the 101st — Mr. McMullen's old unit.
"Jack was way into his Alzheimer's by then, but I think he knew," Rhoda says. "I told him. And I saw him smile."