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During an eventful life that spanned nearly a century, Kenneth H. Dahlberg went from a one-room schoolhouse to aerial heroism during World War II and then to vast success as a Twin Cities businessman.

But it was his brief cameo role in the Watergate scandal nearly 40 years ago that remained a footnote to his life that never really went away.

Dahlberg, a Deephaven resident who founded what became the Miracle-Ear hearing aid company and bankrolled other companies, died Tuesday. He was 94.

"His attitude was that Watergate made good copy, and that's how journalism works," said Warren Mack, who wrote a biography of Dahlberg. "Ken understood that, and even though it was a source of pain for [his wife], Ken never really saw it that way."

Paul Waldon, who worked for Dahlberg nearly 25 years, remembered him as "a patriot, businessperson and entrepreneur who was always trying to do the right thing. ... He was the real deal."

A daughter, Dede Disbrow, also called Dahlberg "a patriot -- he bled red, white and blue."

Born in St. Paul, Dahlberg grew up on a farm near Wilson, Wis., attending a one-room school before moving back to the city to finish his education at an accredited high school. After working for several years in the hotel industry, he was drafted shortly before the United States entered the war.

Shot down three times

He became a fighter pilot and on June 2, 1944, four days before D-Day, he arrived in England to join the 354th Fighter Group, flying P-51 Mustangs to support the invasion.

Credited with 15 aerial victories, Dahlberg was shot down three times behind enemy lines, escaped twice and sat out the last few months of the war as a POW in Stalag VII-A near Munich. Among other military honors, he received a Distinguished Flying Cross.

After the war, he went to work for a firm called Telex, which made hearing aids and other communications equipment. He started his own company in 1948, which became Miracle-Ear, a firm he later sold to go into the venture capital business. Among the companies he invested in was the Buffalo Wild Wings restaurant chain.

"He comes out of World War II with a thousand dollars of back pay [from] when he was a POW and was willing and able to do anything," Waldon said. "He wanted to do whatever he could to make the republic better."

In his years working for Dahlberg, Waldon recalls what he called "Ken-isms," including: "He always lived life on the edge and said if you're not, you're not using up your allotted space."

He also dabbled in politics. Dahlberg's political activities grew out of a wartime friendship with Barry Goldwater, who had been one of his aviation instructors. Dahlberg was a deputy chairman of fundraising for the Arizona Republican's presidential campaign in 1964.

No Watergate wrongdoing

As the Midwest finance chairman of President Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign, Dahlberg was pulled into the Watergate scandal even though he engaged in no wrongdoing. He became linked to the scandal after a $25,000 check he delivered to the Nixon campaign turned up in a Watergate burglar's bank account, tying Nixon to the break-in.

The contribution, which was legal, had come from Dwayne Andreas, a native of Worthington, Minn., who was former chairman of Archer-Daniels-Midland.

Dahlberg was cleared by a grand jury of any wrongdoing, but his role in Watergate was parlayed into a moment of high drama in the movie that documented the scandal, "All the President's Men."

One scene shows Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward phoning Dahlberg to ask about the check, eliciting a tense standoff, though no allegations are made against Dahlberg.

At one point, as the White House tapes later revealed, Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, mentioned Dahlberg's role to Nixon, to which the president responded, "Who the hell is Ken Dahlberg?"

Mack, a longtime friend of Dahlberg who wrote his biography, "One Step Forward: The Life of Ken Dahlberg," said that he didn't mention Watergate in the book "because it's still uncomfortable for Betty Jayne [Dahlberg's wife]. There was always this implication that he did something wrong."

Mack added that Dahlberg himself lamented that Watergate overshadowed his accomplishments in battle and in business. "He was just the victim of circumstance," Mack said.

'Flying right up to the end'

Flying remained a passion throughout Dahlberg's life. He served with the Minnesota Air National Guard until 1951, was inducted into the Minnesota and Arizona Aviation Halls of Fame, and continued flying -- either as pilot or co-pilot -- into his 90s.

"He was flying right up to the end -- he was still so good at it," Disbrow said. "And he was a funny guy -- I'd take him for rides around the lake in a convertible and he'd ask why I couldn't afford a car with a roof."

Along with his wife of 64 years and Disbrow, survivors include another daughter, Nancy Dahlberg; son K. Jeffrey Dahlberg; brother Arnold Dahlberg, and sisters Marcella Savage and Harriet Dolny.

A memorial service is scheduled for Oct. 12 at Colonial Church of Edina. Memorials are suggested to the Minnesotans' Military Appreciation Fund or Colonial Church of Edina. • 612-673-4482 • 612-673-7184