Jack R. Culley took a passion for sailing and turned it into a business that eventually transformed thousands of landlubbers into sailors.

"He was one of the real spokesmen for sailing in Minnesota and the Great Lakes," said longtime friend Bill Sorem of Minnetonka.

Culley, who raised his family in Bloomington and later split his time between Superior, Wis., and St. Petersburg, Fla., died May 20 of pancreatic cancer. He was 82.

Culley grew up in Nebraska and Wyoming and then landed in Minnesota in the early 1950s.

He worked in marketing for Pillsbury's refrigerated-food division and discovered a new passion on the water. "Having lived in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, a person certainly can get pointed into the direction of sailing," said his son, Jack Culley Jr. of Manitowoc, Wis. He remembers sailing on Lake Minnetonka and Prior Lake with his dad, a voracious reader who learned many of his boating skills from books.

Culley, a consummate salesman, soon began selling boats out of his garage. Eventually, he quit his day job to expand Sailboats Inc. into a business that not only included sales but sailboat charter fleets, sailing schools and marina management. About 11,000 people graduated from the company's sailing school, his son said.

Greg Korstad of Plymouth was among those who fell in love with sailing after attending Culley's sailing school. "It really became a passion in my life. ... Jack shared so much of his absolute love of boating with all his customers," he said. "He did have a contagion for sailing. He was a very careful sailor who made sure everything was done right."

Culley was one of the founders of the Leech Lake regattas in the 1970s and was active in the LOWISA, an annual weeklong sailing regatta held on Lake of the Woods along the Ontario-Minnesota border.

"Jack was an unbelievably intense competitor," Sorem said. "He sailed the Trans-Superior [sailboat race] I don't know how many times, and that's one of the nastiest sailboat races in the United States. ... Superior is absolutely nasty to sail on. I never enjoyed it. But he was fearless. I sailed with him on it ... and I never have been so scared. The wind was blowing, you couldn't see anything but you could hear the freighters. You could hear them rumble but you couldn't see them. You had no idea where they were."

By 1981, Culley took to the air and learned to fly. "It became his new passion," his son said.

"My dad was the typical Type A person," his son said. "He was a workaholic. Intense. Well-focused on work. He also was very bright. And he could interact with people effortlessly."

A few months before Culley's cancer diagnosis, he was still playing tennis, golfing, flying his plane, sailing and running his business. As a volunteer pilot for Mercy Flights Southeast, Culley flew his last "angel" flight in January, his son said. His cancer was diagnosed in February.

Culley also is survived by his wife, Lynda of Superior; a son, Tom, of Chicago; a daughter, Kathy Culley of Minneapolis; one granddaughter, and his former wife, Carolyn Culley of Richfield.

A memorial service will be held this summer in Duluth.

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788