Edwin Wingate, a human resources executive who helped a regional department store chain transform itself into retail giant Target Corp., died July 6 of pancreatic cancer in Northfield. He was 81.

Wingate, a resident of Minnetonka for many years, was the senior vice president of human resources at Dayton Hudson Corp., from 1980 to 1997, a time of explosive growth for the retailer. Ultimately, the Minneapolis-based company was renamed Target, and the department store division was sold.

Wingate played an important, mostly behind-the-scenes role identifying top job candidates and nurturing their careers to the benefit of the retailer.

"He was excellent at that," said Bruce Allbright, a former Dayton Hudson president. "We got top-notch people in most all positions … He was a good, good man in every sense of the word. He did not put himself first in any way I know of."

Retired Target CEO Bob Ulrich said Wingate influenced his career, encouraging his move from the department store division into Target.

"He offered great guidance to others in terms of building backup and team members," Ulrich said.

Wingate was born in Lincoln, Neb., and lived in dozens of cities in the West during the Depression as his father sought work, according to family members. In Wellington, Kan., where the family eventually settled, Wingate got his first job working for the railroad, and eventually financial help to attend college and other career encouragement from the local trainmaster.

That experience — of an employer helping an employee's career — influenced Wingate throughout his life, family members said.

"He would always look for ways he could be supportive of others," said his daughter, Laurie Wingate.

After graduating from Kansas State in 1954, he served as a captain in the U.S. Air Force and went on to earn a master's degree in business administration from University of California, Berkeley in 1959. After that, he did a decade of labor relations work in California.

In 1971, he moved to the Twin Cities to serve as vice president of human resources at Toro in Bloomington, and later worked at Pillsbury. The rest of his career was spent in Minnesota except for a two-year stint at Shaklee Corp. in California before moving back to take a job at Dayton Hudson.

"His talents and skills were not known outside of Target and probably not even known in a big way throughout Target," said retired Wells Fargo CEO and longtime Target director Richard Kovacevich.

Wingate also served on the boards of Toro, Iams pet foods and other companies.

During the early 1990s debate over President Bill Clinton's proposed health care plan, Wingate played a prominent role speaking on behalf of businesses potentially affected by the measure, which didn't pass. In an interview with the New York Times at the time, Wingate said companies could cope with health care spending targets set by the government — a key feature of that plan. "In the long run, we hope competitive forces would make it superfluous," he said.

He served as an elder at Faith Presbyterian Church in Minnetonka and Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina. He was an avid golfer — making three holes-in-one during his lifetime. In the mid-1990s, after his second marriage, he moved to Northfield and lived halftime in Arizona.

He is survived by his wife, Karen Nomeland Wingate; daughter Laurie Wingate, of Washington, D.C.; a stepdaughter, Dr. Jill Dulac, of Eden Prairie; a stepson, Dr. Tom Nomeland, of Lakeville; a brother, James Wingate, of Minnetonka; and three grandchildren and six stepgrandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Thursday at St. John's Lutheran Church in Northfield.