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HIGH ACHIEVER WAS A MODEST FAMILY MAN

It would have been easy for retired Lt. Col. Richard Derridinger to brag.

He earned so many medals during his military career, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star for Valor, that his family doesn't know what they're all for. He ran several successful airlines and started at least four businesses, ranging from a gift shop to a sheet metal business to a company that designed and maintained interior landscapes. He flew astronauts, including Neil Armstrong, in flights designed to simulate zero-gravity in preparation for the moon missions.

So if he wanted to boast, no one would have minded. But that wasn't his way. In fact, even his daughter didn't know some of the remarkable achievements of her father's life.

"I'm just finding out about a lot of this stuff now, from people who knew him and worked with him," Bennington Derridinger said.

Lt. Col. Derridinger died Sept. 4 after a prolonged illness. He was 77.

"He was a very quiet man, modest, even kind of shy," said his wife, Dawn. "He was very gentle, but he was a man's man."

She recalled one evening when Lt. Col. Derridinger returned after an Air Force assignment that had kept him away from home for several days.

"I said 'What did you do?' and he said 'Oh, nothing much,'" Dawn Derridinger said.

It was only later that she found out that he had been flying a plane full of passengers and very new high-tech military equipment, and the plane had experienced multiple mechanical failures. Lt. Col. Derridinger somehow managed to land the plane, saving lives and millions of dollars.

To Lt. Col. Derridinger, it wasn't the act of a hero, just that of a man doing his job.

"Everything he did, he did it to perfection," his daughter said.

He got accustomed to hard work early, growing up in rural Pennsylvania during the Depression. He'd ride his bike to a nearby farm, cut asparagus, then sell it to grocers - all before he went to school.

He briefly played with the Philadelphia Eagles in the very early days of the National Football League. An injury kept him from playing beyond training camp. Even his daughter never knew about his brief NFL career until just a few years ago.

He went to college, joined the Air Force and flew in Vietnam before returning to duty in this country.

When he retired from the military, he ran a commuter airline in Vermont. Later an acquaintance asked him come to Tampa and start an airline that would service Florida, so he became president of Dolphin Airways.

He had run several successful businesses, but he longed to actually own one. So he bought Living Plants, a Seffner-based company that supplied plants for the downtown Hyatt and many other major local buildings. He knew nothing at all about that kind of operation when he started, but he hired consultants to teach him and then hired quality employees.

"He didn't know that business, but he knew people," his daughter said. "He expected a lot from people, and he got it. There was just something about him that inspired people to do their best for him."

He later opened Nature Works, a gift shop in Old Hyde Park Village, and the Tin Man, a sheet metal business just east of Tampa. He also opened and ran charter airlines at the same time his other businesses were operating.

Even people who knew him well may not have known everything he did, his daughter said. People who knew him through business almost certainly didn't know about his military heroics.

There was one thing he never minded boasting about though.

"He loved his family," Bennington Derridinger said. "He always let us know that he was prouder of us than of anything else in his life."

Besides his wife and his daughter Bennington, Lt. Col. Derridinger is survived by daughters Leslie Case, Lori Case and Olivia Derridinger; son Richard K. Derridinger Jr. (Angell); a brother; two sisters; and five grandchildren.

Marty Clear writes life stories about Tampa residents who have recently passed away. He can be reached at mclear@tampabay.rr.com.

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