See more of the story

Douglas West Leatherdale, a philanthropist and former chairman and CEO of the St. Paul Companies, died quietly and peacefully Sunday on his 79th birthday after spending the evening with family and friends at a Twin Cities restaurant, his wife, Louise, said.

"He was an entrepreneur who loved giving back to the communities he lived in, both in Canada as well as here in the Twin Cities," Louise Leatherdale said of her husband, who sat on the boards of UnitedHealth Group and the Minnesota Orchestra.

She said Leatherdale was a quiet, devoted family man with a very keen intellect who was not ostentatious.

"Listening was one of his major traits," she said. "Whether it be in a boardroom or at the family kitchen table, he'd listen and then he'd come up with the most amazing questions to help with decisionmaking. But he didn't ever force his way on you."

Born on Dec. 6, 1936, in Morden, Manitoba, Leatherdale grew up on a small farm and attended a one-room schoolhouse. He was the first in his family to graduate from high school, and then went on to United College in Winnipeg (now the University of Winnipeg) and additional studies at Harvard Business School and the University of California, Berkeley.

Leatherdale served as a pension executive for the Minneapolis-based Lutheran Church in America for four years before joining the St. Paul Companies in 1972. He held many positions at the insurer before leading the company from 1990 to 2001.

Karen Himle, who worked with Leatherdale for 17 years at an executive level, said he was a visionary who turned the St. Paul Companies into a global insurer, yet never lost sight of its Minnesota roots.

He was dedicated to making sure the firm practiced equal opportunity and tolerated no discrimination in its workforce, she said, and made it one of the first companies in the state to offer domestic partner benefits and an onsite day-care center.

Leatherdale was "very devoted to his own family," she said, and a strong advocate of balancing family and work.

"He went through college on a scholarship and was an astute observer of social and human dynamics," Himle said. "He also saw a role in lifting up people who didn't have a voice."

In 2000, Leatherdale agreed to serve as corporate chairman for the NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet, an annual fundraiser in St. Paul. When a scheduled speaker became ill and had to cancel, Leatherdale learned that Nelson Mandela was in California and arranged to fly him to St. Paul for the event.

Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and U.S. senator, said Leatherdale was the go-to business leader in the city for many years, especially during the 1990s.

"He was a tour de force in terms of championing the city and development and growth," helping attract riverfront development, Lawson Software and the Minnesota Wild hockey team, Coleman said.

"All of those things were done with Doug Leatherdale right at my side when I was mayor," he said.

Louise Leatherdale said her husband was proud to help bring the Wild to St. Paul because he played hockey "from the time he could walk." He also loved horses from his farm background, she said, and the couple operated Leatherdale Farms in western Hennepin County for 35 years. The company breeds Hanoverians, high-end riding horses often used for equestrian events in the Olympics.

Leatherdale was also a key leader in fundraising that successfully attracted the Republican National Convention to St. Paul in 2008, Coleman said.

A few weeks before he retired from the St. Paul Companies, Leatherdale arranged to fly former President George H.W. Bush to address company employees. It was Sept. 11, 2001, and Bush was in the air in a company jet when terrorists attacked New York and other targets. All aircraft were ordered to land, and the flight carrying Bush was diverted to Milwaukee.

"He [Doug] got a call apologizing for the former president not being able to be at his appointed place in St. Paul," his wife said.

After retirement, Leatherdale remained active in the business and cultural community. He continued serving as an independent director of UnitedHealth Group Inc., having joined the board in 1983. He stepped down in June.

Leatherdale made many gifts to the Twin Cities community, among them donations to the Children's Theatre Co.; to the Leatherdale Equine Center at the University of Minnesota; and $5 million over the next five years to create and fund the Douglas and Louise Leatherdale Music Director Chair in honor of Minnesota Orchestra music director Osmo Vänskä.

The Canadian-born Leatherdale appeared in his homeland in September in a wheelchair at a ceremony in Winnipeg announcing a $2 million gift to the Assiniboine Park and Zoo's redevelopment. The donation was revealed in front of the polar bear area, which was renamed the Leatherdale International Polar Bear Conservation Centre.

Leatherdale was also a collector of fine Inuit sculpture and recently made a major gift to the Inuit Collection at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Himle said.

Along with his wife, Louise, Leatherdale is survived by children Mary Jo, Chris, Tim and Tom, eight grandchildren and his sister, Sharon. Memorial services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Dec. 14, at Orchestra Hall in downtown Minneapolis, with a reception to follow.

Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388