Air Force General Loved Flying, Serving

U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. John P. Russell was a very private, devout pilot who used the call sign "Deacon" when he flew 54 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets during the Korean War.

He also had a sense of humor and deep love for his West Virginia hometown.

As his older brother Charles tells the story, the future general and a fellow fighter pilot were flying side-by-side from South Carolina to Washington, D.C., in the 1950s when they received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to pass over Mill Creek, W.Va., at 2,000 feet.

Russell didn't mention it was in a mountain valley at 1,900 feet above sea level.

"He buzzed the town twice and did a spiral and a roll-over," his 89-year-old brother said. "The cows wouldn't milk and the chickens stopped laying eggs. ... You can imagine the discussions at the post office."

Russell, 84, died Sunday in hospice care at his winter home in Summerfield, near The Villages. His summer home remained the house where he was born and wanted to be the town's doctor.

But he followed his family's history of military service dating back to the Civil War after graduating pre-med from West Virginia University. A top student, he had served in 1949 as the Mountaineer mascot at campus sporting events.

"My first duty was at Pinecastle Air Force base in Orlando," Russell told the Orlando Sentinel in 2011 about training to be a pilot at what became McCoy Air Force base. "In those days, 60 years ago, the only excitement around Orlando on Saturday nights was the rodeo at Kissimmee."

His Air Force career twice stationed him in Thailand during the Vietnam War, where he flew F-105 Thunderchief fighter-bombers and served in 1966 as chief of combat operations for the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing.

As commander of the fighter wing in 1974, he supervised air operations in the Vietnam War's last battle during the recovery of the USS Mayaguez, according to his Air Force biography.

"He loved -- he absolutely loved flying," said his daughter Anne Bailey of Niceville. "Anything he could fly, he would."

The Russell family moved almost yearly until the brigadier general retired in 1980 after 29 years of service.

His military decorations included the Legion of Merit with oak-leaf cluster, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Bronze Star.

But the general never really retired, devoting himself to public service and serving as a Presbyterian elder.

His wife, Elaine, twice served as mayor of Mill Creek, population 724. They helped raise $500,000 for the Tygarts Valley Community Library and the foundation of an urgent-care medical center and obtained a federal grant to dam Elkwater Creek for a year-round water supply, according to his family.

"The best gift he gave to all of his children was Christianity," Anne Bailey said, noting he never discussed what he did for others. "Probably a lot of things will come to light I'm not aware of now."

Russell also is survived by one son, John Russell of Johnson City, Tenn.; and another sister, Susan Gornto of Shalimar.

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