Obituary: Joseph Lapensky earned respect as NWA's quiet, effective leader

He led Northwest Airlines through turbulent times for the industry without ever seeking the spotlight.

During the deregulation of the airline industry in the early 1980s, many airlines found new and creative ways to lose money. But not Northwest Airlines. Under the steady hand of M. Joseph Lapensky, who grew up in Hastings and rose through the ranks from junior accountant to chief executive officer, Northwest Airlines became one of the most profitable and stable airlines in the world.

And yet few outside his industry knew of him because of his unassuming style.

Lapensky died Thursday at age 93.

"He was a work, pray and save kind of man," said Brent Baskfield, who worked with Lapensky in the years before Northwest was acquired by Delta Air Lines. In other words, he typified the kind of low-key, highly effective corporate executive for which Minnesota was once famous.

He was also a funny, tender father and husband, his children said.

"He was the best dad ever," said his youngest son, Joe Lapensky. "He had a charismatic personality that you wanted to be around."

Lapensky was born in Hastings, where his father worked as an engineer for the Milwaukee Road Railroad. Lapensky would ride the trains with his dad between Hastings and Stillwater, and that instilled in him a love of travel.

The family moved to Minneapolis, and Lapensky attended South High School, and then the College of St. Thomas, where he earned a degree in finance.

He started working at the airline as a junior accountant in 1945 and never left. He and his wife, Joan, who survives him, raised six children in Richfield in the house on Stevens Avenue where he lived until he died.

He was a hard worker, but invariably he walked in the door at 5:50 p.m. and sat down to dinner with his family at 6 p.m. "I used to joke, 6 p.m. and 0 minutes and 0 seconds unless there was a nuclear bomb on our block," said the younger Joe Lapensky. At Easter, he designed a treasure hunt for his kids with clever clues, and each year he organized a neighborhood golf tournament.

He worked his way up through the financial side of the airline until he was made president in 1976. He became chief executive officer three years later, following the footsteps of Donald Nyrop, the company's notoriously combative and penny-pinching top executive.

Despite the turbulence of deregulation, Lapensky strengthened Northwest's position in the Pacific, where it became the dominant carrier, and launched operations in northern Europe. The company modernized its fleet by investing more than $1.5 billion and still largely avoided the debt that crippled its competitors.

And in contrast to Nyrop, Lapensky had a good working relationship with the airline's unions, though he would not hesitate to stand up to them when necessary.

In 1979, when a strike shut down United Airlines, Northwest operations were overwhelmed with demand. When it was over, Lapensky sent a teletype to all the airline's stations, thanking employees for their hard work and giving everyone a small bonus. He was flooded with letters of gratitude from all over the world.

Lapensky had the same style in his volunteer work, which continued long after he left the company.

He helped raise $500,000 for a new gymnasium at Holy Angels School in Richfield, which his children attended, but adamantly refused to allow the school to name it after him. He told the school superintendent he didn't want to be known as the school's sugar daddy because that would make it harder for it to raise money from other sources.

At the time of his retirement, an industry analyst summed up Lapensky's tenure at Northwest in a way that summed up much of his life. He said that Lapensky was entitled to credit for running one of Minnesota's major corporations, credit that he didn't get because he refused to grandstand. His deeds would never be written in stone, he said, "but I have a feeling he doesn't give a damn."

Josephine Marcotty • 612-673-7394

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