Gilbert H. Burnett
August 7, 1925 - November 9, 2020
Gilbert Henry "Gill" Burnett, Retired Chief Judge of the 5th Judicial District of Wilmington, North Carolina, passed away peacefully at home, surrounded by family, at the age of 95 on November 9, 2020. Gil was born on August 7, 1925, in Burgaw, North Carolina to the late John Henry and Ruth Deaton Burnett.
Gil was a 5th generation New Hanover County resident who was happiest with the salt spray on his face and the sea breeze in his hair. He enjoyed sailing, scuba diving, and photography both under and above the water. His love of the ocean came from spending summers at the Carolina Beach family cottage built by his parents in 1936. At age 12, Gil was a "carnival boy" on the boardwalk at Carolina Beach, where he began his successful snowball business. At the age of 18, he volunteered for the Army Air Corps (which became the US Air Force) and became a pilot of the B-25 Mitchell just before WWII ended. Shortly after WWII, Gil married Margaret Patricia Bolling from Winston-Salem, NC, and they had three children.
After the military, Gil enrolled in undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in 1956 graduated from Wake Forest University Law School. While in law school, he was on the debate team and law review. After a successful law career in Wilmington, Gil was elected District Court Judge for New Hanover and Pender counties in 1968. He was later appointed Chief Judge of the 5th Judicial District by the Chief Justice of the NC Supreme Court, where he served on the bench for twenty-three years before his retirement August 1, 1991. One of his most ambitious projects as a judge was to help young offenders get on the right path and become productive citizens.
Gil was thankful for the numerous awards and recognitions that he received during his lifetime, including "The Order of the Long Leaf Pine" bestowed by Governor James B. Hunt, Jr. in 1984 and the "Lifetime Achievement Award" bestowed by StarNews Media in 2017. He was also recognized as "Tarheel of the Week" by the Raleigh News and Observer and was honored to receive the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Founder's Day Speaker of the House Award for Outstanding Public Servants and Community Leaders in 2015. His civic contributions and leadership involved bringing the USS North Carolina Battleship to Wilmington in 1961, becoming a founding member of WHET (Wilmington Harbor Enhancement Trust) in 1993, and founded the Community Service Work Program for the criminal justice system in the early 1980's which has now expanded nationally. Gil was a member of various organizations through the years, including QB or "Quiet Birdmen" (an organization of great pilots), the Navy League, the Wilmington Cotillion, the Wilmington Scottish Society and 50+ years with the US Power Squadron. Throughout his years, he enjoyed music, ballroom and jitterbug dancing, and traveling. He lived an adventurous and enterprising life resulting in many excellent stories, of which he was an equally excellent recounter.
Gil is survived by many in his family, including: his daughter, Betsy Benning (and husband Fleet) of Louisburg, NC; his daughter, Sandra Burnett, of Raleigh, NC; and his son, John Stephen Burnett, of Wrightsville Beach, NC; four grandchildren: Melanie Lark Benning of Raleigh, NC; John William Benning (and wife Anna) of Minneapolis, MN; Henry Burnett of Berlin, Germany; and Harry Burnett of Wrightsville Beach, NC; and one great-grandchild, John Theodore Benning of Minneapolis, MN. He is also survived by two siblings: Julian Burnett (and wife Vivian) of Wilmington, NC and Sylvia Burnett Crippen of Connecticut. He was preceded in death by his parents, his wife, Margaret Bolling Burnett (mother of his children), his sisters: Annetta Collins; Ruth Phillips; Phyllis Burnett; Mary Elizabeth Quaintence; Susie Jones; and his brother Jack Burnett.
The family has commissioned a sundial which has been placed outside the Ft. Fisher Aquarium in the vicinity of where Gil's great-great-grandfather raised free-range cattle in the early 1800's. A friend of Gil's in QB has volunteered to fly Gil's ashes into the "Graveyard of the Atlantic"; one of his last wishes was to be in the Gulf Stream on the way back to his ancestral Scottish roots.
A Celebration of Life gathering will be held in 2021 at the Hannah Block USO Center in Wilmington. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to the Burnett Thalian Association Community Theatre Preservation Fund ( www.thalian.org ) or Lower Cape Fear LifeCare ( www.lifecare.org ) in Wilmington, NC.
Shared memories and condolences can be made at www.harrellsfh.com
A service of Harrell's Funeral Home and Cremation Service, Burgaw.