Business writers took notice in 1973 when Patricia Louise LaBerge was promoted to a corporate position at General Mills that no woman had ever held: assistant to the board chairman and chief executive officer.
“It was a big deal at the time and I remember there were some at the company — mostly men — who were not happy about it,’’ said Sue Bucknam, a former colleague and longtime friend of LaBerge.
A graduate of Minneapolis Central High School who died Aug. 18 at age 85, LaBerge worked at General Mills for 36 years. She is remembered there as a dedicated, popular and highly effective aide to James P. McFarland when he was diversifying the company as its chief executive from 1969 to 1977. She also worked for McFarland’s successor, Bob Kinney.
“She played a key role here because that was an important job,’’ said Tom Forsythe, a spokesman for the American Fortune 500 food company.
The Minneapolis Tribune and Milling & Banking News reported on LaBerge’s 1973 promotion, noting that she succeeded a Harvard Business School graduate and 41-year veteran of the company, Carter M. Dewey.
Bucknam, LaBerge’s friend who worked at General Mills under former finance chief Bo Polk, said the executive dining room at General Mills was closed to women when she and LaBerge were working long hours in the 1960s. But she said LaBerge cherished her working relationship with McFarland and was awarded stock options and “VIP Plan” bonuses.
“He was a fine, fine man and she just loved working for him,’’ Bucknam said.
Among the corporate acquisitions LaBerge was privy to as McFarland’s assistant were the purchases of Red Lobster restaurants and the Yoplait yogurt brand.
LaBerge wasn’t an extrovert, but she was friendly and blessed with gentle social skills, said her niece, Linda Therkelsen, of Minneapolis.
“When we were young, she used to tell us that she sewed the Xs on the flour bags at General Mills,’’ Therkelsen said. “It was never about her. She had a way of handling things calmly and there was no ego about her.’’
Raised in south Minneapolis with four sisters and one brother, LaBerge was proud to be the first girl messenger as a teenager for what was then Dorsey Colman Barker Scott & Barber Law Firm (later Dorsey Whitney). Her father, Armand J. LaBerge, was an industrial arts teacher who wrote books about woodworking that are still in use.
LaBerge joined General Mills in 1955 as a legal secretary and went to work for McFarland as his administrative secretary in 1959 when he was general manager of the grocery products division. She retired from the company in 1991.
Therkelsen and Bucknam said LaBerge was an international traveler who liked reading, art, the orchestra and walks around Lake Harriet and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
She was preceded in death by her parents, Armand and Pearl LaBerge; and sisters Mary (May) Ohnstein, Annette Mattoon, Jane Cotter and Shirley Tollefson, to whom she was especially close. LaBerge is survived by her brother, Armand LaBerge, and many nieces and nephews. Services have been held.