Extraordinary Person for an Extraordinary Life

Ken Dahlberg epitomized what Tom Brokaw characterized as “The Greatest Generation.”

Obituaries are the final scorecard of life. Like a baseball box score printed in the paper after the game is over, obituaries coldly and unceremoniously compile a list of the at-bats, hits, walks, RBIs, home runs and even errors in a person’s life. Both the box score and the obituary offer stark details, but fail miserably in revealing the essence and spirit of the game or a life.

This has never been truer than when listing the accomplishments of Ken Dahlberg, who died last week at a very young age of 94. Living almost a century means that Ken had a lot of at-bats and as his published box score noted, he had an exceptionally high batting average; with a lot of hits, home runs, RBIs and few errors. By any account Ken was a perennial all-star.

Sure, the record books will chronicle that Ken grew up a poor farm boy in rural Wisconsin (the family farm was foreclosed on in 1935) to emerge as a true American hero in World War II as a highly decorated triple-ace (15 air victories) fighter pilot who returned home after the war and gained his place in the pantheon of “The Greatest Generation.” As his obituary did, I could list his long litany of business accomplishments, but those are only decorative ornaments in his life that fail to capture the philosophy, heart and spirit of the man that made him so unique and remarkable.

The multitudes of those who knew Ken all have their personal stories about him that when pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle would give a true picture of his greatness. I, for one, want to add my piece to that remembrance.

I heard about Ken Dahlberg before I met him. In the early 1980s I had moved to Minneapolis to work with ITT Life. As was typical of the time, along with the job came membership in a country club (although I had never played golf). Even though I had not met Ken, I remember the reverence the members of the club gave to him. He seemed to be a hero among those who fancied themselves as heroes. Fortuitously, I was once paired with Ken’s group in a club tournament. What struck me immediately was the commonness and humility of this guy.

As a young guy trying to claw my way up the corporate ladder I was excited – and to be honest,  in awe – of having the chance to meet and spend time with a guy who already was a legend in the business community. But what struck me was that he seemed genuinely more interested in finding out about me, than in talking about himself.

It just so happened that the autobiography of Chuck Yeager (first man to break the sound barrier and subject of the movie The Right Stuff) had just been published and I was reading it. Trying to make a connection with Ken (not knowing the details, but aware that he had been a pilot in WW II) I casually asked Ken if he had ever met Chuck Yeager. His response was a casual, “Yea, I have,” and that was it. A few holes later, I sidled up to Ken and asked, “So how did you happen to know Chuck Yeager?” Again, Ken casually responded, “Oh, he was my best man at my wedding.” Whoa! That was it for me; I was blown away. Not wanting to make any more of a fool of myself than I already had, I kept my distance for the rest of the round. Over the next few years I would see Ken at the golf course and he was always friendly and warm, but I would not say that we had become friends.

Then, in 1987, when I and four others had resigned from ITT Life and were attempting to put together the financing for what would be LifeUSA, Ken came to me and offered to be of help if we needed it. A few months later, Transamerica agreed to co-sign a loan of $10 million to fund LifeUSA, but among other conditions for this action, the company required the founders to put up $1 million of their own money. Since we didn’t have $10, let alone a million to put up, things seemed bleak.

Up stepped Ken Dahlberg.

Ken really did not know me and I doubt that he had even met the other founders. But, that did not stop him. With no demand on his part, Ken bravely (some said foolishly) stepped up and issued a letter-of-credit to the bank so that we could borrow the $1 million demanded by Transamerica. Without this action by Ken, it is highly doubtful that LifeUSA – and all that the company accomplished for so many people – would have ever come into existence.

Ken had the leverage to demand much to help mitigate his risk, but – true to his nature – the only thing he asked (asked mind you, not demanded) was the right to buy stock in the company. So, here was a guy who didn’t know the insurance business; he did not know the founders and certainly did not seem to have any reason to take this risk—but he did. Of course, Ken was smarter than we knew and ended up making millions from the stock he owned in LifeUSA, but that was not the point.

A few years later, with LifeUSA growing and doing well, I gained the confidence to ask Ken why he had been willing to take the risk to support our initial efforts. His response told me everything I or anyone else needs to know about Ken. His words are as fresh in my mind today as they were when he said, “America has been good to me. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to be successful in my life and my business. I feel obligated to give back to my country for what it has given me and to pass on to others the opportunities that I have enjoyed.”

I could easily regale you with story upon story, lesson upon lesson and a multitude of examples of mentoring I received from Ken that shaped my philosophy in life and business. All of which were instrumental in generating whatever success has resulted, but no other anecdote could better explain how Ken led his life, than to remember those words.

And the Moral of the Story …

Ken’s box score may be complete and published in black and white in the newspaper, but the game is not over. Not so long as we play the game by Ken’s rules and embrace his basic philosophy to respect and appreciate the opportunities we have and to constantly strive to give back so that there will be more opportunities for those who follow. Thanks, Ken!

 

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