Frank Eugene (Gene) Autrey, a former executive vice president for Florida Power & Light, was a master of time.
Sometimes, time worked in his favor: Fresh out of Miami Senior High School during World War II, Autrey joined an experimental navigation school at the University of Miami, an outfit dubbed “the human guinea pigs,” that was formed to determine if high school graduates could be trained as navigators.
Autrey, who died at 91 on July 30, proved some could. He not only passed, with a grade of 93.6, but in 1943 he was commissioned as a 2nd Lt. in the U.S. Marine Corps. At 19, he earned his wings to become the youngest aviator in the Marines.
Two years later, time also bent Autrey’s way when the Miami Herald reported how he convinced a Miami circuit judge to recompute a 1945 act requiring Florida couples to apply for a marriage license three days before it could be issued. Lt. Autrey and his bride, Marjorie Scott, already had a wedding scheduled at Riverside Methodist Church for the day of the court order.
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Son Kim Autrey tells the story: “My dad was leaving the court and Judge Holt says, “Lieutenant!” and dad turns around. “Don’t you come back in this court asking for a divorce.”
The Autreys were married for 68 years, raising two sons. Marjorie died in 2013.
Time, however, moved at its own pace when Autrey, born in Athens, Ga., on Feb. 11, 1924, returned to Miami at 21 in 1945 after flying 79 combat missions in the Central Pacific during World War II. He also served as a jet pilot during the Korean War. He was what the Miami Herald called “a quiet hero” in a 1994 article.
No medals. No fanfare. Life went on.
“He believed his responsibility was to leave the world, leave the community, a better place than what he found,” said his son. “He went to war twice. Freedom is not free. He believed he owed his country a debt and he wanted to try to pay back, and he wanted to provide his sons the opportunity to do better than he did.”
Autrey, a University of Florida electrical engineering graduate, joined FPL in 1949 and spent the next 30 years with the utility, rising to executive vice president in 1973, and overseeing the commissioning of the Turkey Point nuclear power station just east of Homestead. He would next spend 11 years as chief operating officer for Southeastern Public Service Company, a utility maintenance firm, and serve as a Barry University vice president and member of its Board of Trustees.
Autrey was also a civic leader with roles as a two-time chairman of the United Way, a Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce president and an Orange Bowl Committee president.
“Medals weren’t that important. What was important was to get home,” Autrey figured when the Herald asked about the lack of war-time honors.
Some 50 years later, in 1994, the U.S. Marine Corps awarded Autrey three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 12 Air Medals for his night fighter flights over the Marshall Islands. The ceremony was held at Barry University when Autrey was the school’s vice president of institutional advancement.
“It means a lot. I did what I was supposed to,” Autrey told the Herald in a 1994 column.
Friday, Sister Jeanne O’Laughlin, Barry University’s former president, said of Autrey: “Gene was a biblical man in the sense that Joseph, the husband of Mary, in all the scriptures, they say Joseph was a just man. And when I think of Gene Autrey I think of him as a just man. I think he cared a lot about the world. To me, he had a great sense of community and the needs of the community. It was a privilege knowing Gene.”
Autrey is survived by his sons Kim and Brian, six grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. A memorial Mass will be held at noon Aug. 15 at Church of the Epiphany, 8081 SW 54th Ct., Miami. Donations may be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
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