Delta Air Lines Executive, Sunday School Teacher, Air Force Officer Julius Porter Gwin died Dec. 13 at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Ga. He was 76.
It wasn’t until near the end of his life that Julius told his family about the night he kissed his wife goodbye and boarded the doomsday plane. It was late October 1962, during the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the 24-year-old Lieutenant Gwin was urgently called out of bed to report to Ent Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.
He remembered kissing Dorene, his bride of two months, and telling her that if she heard news reports about war breaking out to drive immediately to her parents’ farm in Pueblo. From Colorado Springs, he flew to a base in Kansas City, where he boarded a Boeing EC135, the youngest and most junior member of a cohort of officers from the Strategic Defense Command who would remain aloft for most of the next few days, monitoring the status of U.S. forces positioned around the world in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
On the plane, Julius sat at a data terminal and relayed information sent via telex between senior officers on the ground and those on the plane. If the Soviets launched missiles, the plane would receive the reports, one by one, of the targeted U.S cities. As the plane circled high above the earth, he tried to focus solely on his duties, but at times, he admitted later, his thoughts drifted to the unthinkable. If nuclear war broke out and those on the plane survived, what would be left of the world when they landed?
If by some quirk of time travel, the young lieutenant could have stared into his data terminal and seen into the future, he would have been heartened by the 52 years that lay in store.
Ten months after the crisis, Julius left the Air Force and moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, where he earned a Masters of Business Administration at the University of Alabama and two years later took a job at the Ford Motor Company in Dearborn, Michigan. There his first child, Peter, was born in 1966. The following year an opportunity arose to join a growing airline headquartered in Atlanta, much closer to his family roots in Mississippi.
Having been born and raised in Drew, a small farming town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, where learning to fly crop dusters was practically every boy’s dream—the offer to work at Delta Air Lines seemed to be providentially ordained.
Over the next three decades, he would rise from a junior analyst in Delta’s finance department to become the company’s comptroller and eventually its vice president for strategic planning. During his tenure, he organized and led the first comprehensive automation of Delta’s record keeping, accounting, and financial reporting systems and was part of the team that lobbied Congress to deregulate the airline business, which set off a sea change in the industry. He also would help to guide Delta’s acquisitions of Northeast Airlines, Republic Airlines, Western Airlines, and Pan Am’s European operations as well as the company’s transformation from a regional carrier into an international transportation leader.
“I counted on Julius to figure out difficult issues at a very difficult time in the airline industry,” says Ron Allen, Delta’s Chairman and CEO from 1987-1997, describing how the company navigated an era defined by corporate raiders, deep cost-cutting, and global expansion. “All the while,” says Allen, “he exemplified the spirit of the people who made Delta special: highly loyal, highly capable, highly dependable.”
He also cultivated talented employees. “Julius polished a lot of ‘diamonds in the rough’,” says Kim Shreckengost, now executive vice president-chief administration officer for AMB Group, parent company of the Atlanta Falcons. “Julius selected me — with no financial education or background – to start up Delta’s investor relations department. He assured me that he would ‘teach me the numbers,’ and he did just that. Together, we went on to build the airline industry’s top investor relations program. He was the best mentor I ever had. I owe my career to Julius.”
Once in Georgia, Julius and Dorene had two more sons, Geoffrey and Timothy, and in 1973, joined a growing number of airline families who were settling in newly developed Peachtree City, located southwest of the Atlanta airport. The couple immersed themselves in the fledgling community, with Julius coaching little league football and Dorene serving on the PTO, raising money for new schools, and eventually teaching several generations of kindergarteners and first graders.
But church became the couple’s cornerstone. They joined Peachtree City’s First Presbyterian Church and later Carriage Lane Presbyterian. Julius served several terms as an elder in both congregations and taught adult Sunday school classes. After his retirement from Delta in 1996, he spent three years volunteering for Mission to the World, an Atlanta-based aid and evangelizing agency for the Presbyterian Church in America.
His dedication to his faith particularly inspired his youngest son Timothy, who is currently finishing his Doctorate of Divinity at Erskine Theological Seminary and now serves as Carriage Lane’s associate pastor.
Some of Julius’s other interests are reflected in the careers chosen by his older sons. As a senior at Mississippi State in 1959, Julius edited the student newspaper, the Reflector, and Peter has pursued a career in journalism, now serving as the expedition editor for National Geographic Magazine. Geoffrey has followed his father into finance, first working for a number of Wall Street firms before founding Group G Capital Partners.
Beyond Delta and the church, Julius engaged in a variety of pastimes. An insatiable reader, he amassed a large, eclectic library that includes extensive collections of books on the U.S. space program, World War II, European sports car design, early 20th century art, and jewelry making, among many other subjects.
He was also a prolific craftsman. Among his jumbled desk drawers and garage shelves, one could always find several miniature liquor bottles (scavenged from Delta flights) containing delicately carved wooden ships, neatly folded bits of origami, various pieces of handmade silver jewelry, and a profusion of notebooks filled with sketches for projects to come.
The trait that knit together this wide-ranging intellect was a gift for storytelling and reasoned debate. Dinnertime at the Gwin household most often ended with Julius pushing back his chair and bringing to life one or more of the colorful figures who populated his Mississippi upbringing or people he encountered during his travels for work. Other times he would preside over highly spirited and deeply informed discussions about international affairs, national politics, the nuances of certain scriptures, and the vagaries of SEC football.
“Pop could walk into a party, pick any person in the room, and find something to talk with them about — from planting strawberries, to the evolution of the Porsche 911, to the wire portrait sculptures of Alexander Caldwell, to the importance of the lesser books of the Old Testament,” says his son Timothy.
And yet, when it came to discussing the night when he almost witnessed the end of the world, Julius remained silent until a few months before he died. When Geoffrey asked him how the experience had affected him, he shrugged. “I came home, kissed your mother, and made plans to get out of the Air Force and get on with living life.”
And that’s exactly what he did.
Julius was born in Drew, Mississippi, on July 31, 1938. He was preceded in death by his father John Gwin Jr, his mother Jessie Lee Hodges Gwin, and a brother Jerry Gwin who died in infancy. He is survived by his wife of 52 years Dorene Mullins Gwin; his brothers John Gwin III and Jan Lee Gwin; his sons Peter Franklin Gwin, Geoffrey Cecil Gwin, and Timothy Joseph Gwin; his daughters-in-law Catherine O’Brien Gwin, Caroline Kao Gwin, and Rosalind Harkins Gwin; and seven grandchildren, two of whom are named in his honor.
The Memorial Service was held Friday, December 19, 2014 at 12 p.m. at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church.
In lieu of flowers, donations in Julius’ name can be made to:
Third Millennium Ministries
316 Live Oaks Boulevard
Casselberry, FL 32707
or online at thirdmill.org
Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church
101 Carriage Lane
Peachtree City, GA 30269
Check memo: Gwin Memorial Gift
Mission to the World
P.O. Box 2589
Suwanee, GA 30024-0982
or online at mtw.org