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Lowell Swenson, an entrepreneur who braved the skies as a World War II pilot and went on to play leading roles in Arctic Enterprises snowmobiles and Mesaba Airlines, knew a lot about risk-taking.

Swenson, a former accountant, mortgaged all he had to buy the fledgling snowmobile company in 1965.

"He lived the American dream," said his son Alan of Cody, Wyo.

The longtime Thief River Falls, Minn., resident died Oct. 16 in Bemidji. He was 86.

After graduating from high school in Lancaster, Minn., and working his way through two years of college at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, he joined the war effort.

The decorated squadron leader piloted B-24 Liberator bombers and was based in North Africa and, later, in Italy.

Pilot helps crippled plane

On one of his 50 missions, he and his crew could have met their end when flak took out two of their plane's four engines. Their bomber drifted away from the rest of the formation, and that's when enemy fighter pilots usually pounced.

If it weren't for a Tuskegee Airman's P-51 fighter, Swenson later said, the worst would have happened.

While the P-51 flew under the wing of the crippled bomber, no enemy aircraft attacked, and they made it safely back to base.

He would tell his family, "it was as though the fighter pilot held our wing up," said his son Rob of Anchorage, Alaska.

When Swenson returned from the war, he earned his bachelor's degree in accounting at the University of Minnesota in 1947, becoming a certified public accountant.

He worked as an accountant in Grand Forks, but in 1959, he moved to Thief River Falls to manage an electrical manufacturing firm.

His snowmobile business

After striking out on his own in 1965, he joked that he "mortgaged the kids" to buy Arctic Enterprises.

Under his leadership, the snowmobile company became a publicly traded firm. He sold his controlling interest in 1978 and later came back as an investor, and served as chairman of the board of the present day Arctic Cat company. He was a board member until 1999.

William Ness, vice chairman of Arctic Cat, said Swenson's people skills were big keys to his success.

"He was happy to see others do well," said Ness. "He would tell you what needed to be done, turn you loose."

Swenson and two of his sons acquired and operated two banks, in Baudette and Blackduck.

In 1978, he and two other sons bought Mesaba Aviation, and by 1982 the firm went public. It is now a subsidiary of Northwest Airlines.

Rob Swenson, former president of the airline, said his father taught people "not to be afraid and dream big."

"He was not afraid of risk."

Swenson helped lead educational initiatives in northwest Minnesota and at the University of North Dakota.

For many years, he was a private pilot.

He began to ease into retirement in 1999.

His wife of 54 years, Marjorie Evelyn, died in 2001. He remarried in 2002. His second wife, Marjorie, died in 2004.

In addition to Alan and Rob, he is survived by his other sons, David of Bemidji and Philip of Grand Rapids, Minn.; sisters Cora Schenkey of Middle River, Minn., and Ruth Oasheim of Hoople, N.D.; nine grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.

Services have been held.