You can pack an awful lot of life into 93 years, as James M. Grogan demonstrated. In those nine-plus decades, Grogan survived the Great Depression and the youthful loss of his father. He made it through World War II and, later, a midair plane collision.
He married a former Miss Minnesota and hung out with celebrities ranging from musicians to movie stars to astronauts. He spent more than 17,000 hours — the equivalent of two full years — at the controls of airplanes, as a military and then corporate pilot. After his flying career ended, he ran a dizzying succession of businesses as a turnaround specialist before anyone knew what that was.
And he taught himself to play drums and the piano, while dabbling in sculpture and art.
“People would gravitate to him,” said his son Mike of Waconia. “He had a ton of friends, both famous people and regular people. He kind of lived his life the way he needed to.”
Grogan died Jan. 20 from the effects of bone marrow malfunction. A Minneapolis native, he was an Edina resident for much of his adult life but at the time of his death was living in Minnetonka.
He grew up on Portland Avenue in Minneapolis, attended Holy Name grade school and graduated from Central High School in 1940. His father, a maître d’ at the Hotel Nicollet, died when Grogan was 13. His mother went to work to support the family, so Grogan and his two brothers took on the tasks of cleaning and cooking.
“He taught me how to sew on a button,” said his daughter Sheila of Oakland, Calif.
He became fascinated with flying after his father took him to Wold-Chamberlain Field in 1927 to watch famed aviator Charles Lindbergh land the Spirit of St. Louis. Grogan began taking flying lessons in high school and soloed the summer he graduated.
In 1943, he joined the Marines as a flight trainee and was commissioned a lieutenant. He was sent to the South Pacific, where he flew transport planes and lived in the jungle among bats the size of geese. At war’s end he mustered out as a captain, returned to Minneapolis and was hired as a pilot for TWA. That launched an aviation career that lasted more than 25 years and ended with Grogan flying as chief pilot for Pillsbury.
In 1961, Grogan and 13 passengers survived a midair crash when a small plane collided with his Pillsbury aircraft as he was landing in Florida. An investigation cleared him of blame in the crash, which killed two people in the smaller plane.
Grogan left Pillsbury after 20 years to run a refrigeration business, the start of a new career that he pursued well into his 70s. He developed a reputation for taking troubled businesses and returning them to profitability. His friends during those busy years included people like movie legend Elizabeth Taylor and astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space.
Grogan’s second wife, Elaine Campbell Westhoff, was Miss Minnesota in 1947 and first runner-up in the Miss America pageant. She died of cancer after six years of marriage.
“He was a guy’s kind of guy,” Sheila Grogan said. “He loved football and would bet on it. He played cards. But he was also an exquisite gentleman. He always showed up with flowers and he opened doors.”
In addition to Mike and Sheila, he is survived by his first wife, Kathleen Gill Bush; sons John, of Phoenix, and Jimmy, of Red Lodge, Mont.; daughter Maureen Warner of Edina; eight grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
The funeral will be held at 1 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 12, at the Church of St. Patrick, 6820 St. Patrick’s Lane, Edina.