When Dexter Clarke visited Leaders Flying Service for the first time a half-century ago, he thought to himself, "Man, this is what heaven must look like."
The Clear Lake business — an airfield owned by pilot and mechanic Robert "Bob" Leaders — looked like a playground for aviation enthusiasts with vintage planes parked in an overgrown grass field and a salvage yard with planes ready to be plucked of their parts for reuse.
For decades, Leaders spent nearly every day at that airport working as a flight instructor, aircraft dealer and mechanic. He died Jan. 9 after suffering a heart attack at his home on the airfield property. He was 89.
"He worked until he couldn't. His body was worn out," said Kurt Leaders, one of Bob and wife Diane's 10 children, who now runs the business with brother Chase Leaders.
"But he was sharp as a tack until the day he died," Kurt Leaders said, noting how his dad could rattle off the answer to any question about the internal workings of airplanes until his last day. That expertise made Leaders well-known in the aviation community and helped earn him a place in the Minnesota Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018.
But most people remember Leaders more for his generosity, including 73-year-old Clarke, who met Leaders when Clarke was inquiring about becoming a pilot. Clarke said he met resistance and was told by several businesses they didn't "accommodate persons of color." Then a friend suggested Leaders Flying Service.
"Bob embraced my ambition. He said to me, 'Let's go fly. $8 for the plane and $4 for the instructor,'" Clarke said. "That wouldn't even pay for gas. He just picked a number."
That first flight laid the groundwork for Clarke's career: He became a pilot and is now an executive at the Minnesota-based Executive Air Leasing.
"I owe him a debt of gratitude for [allowing] me to become who I am today," said Clarke, who now lives in Minneapolis.
Leaders was born in Ottertail, Minn., in 1933. He served in the U.S. Army as a paratrooper and then earned his pilot's and mechanic's licenses. Leaders then managed St. Cloud's Whitney Memorial Airport until the city moved its airport to its current site. In 1969, Leaders purchased a farm in Clear Lake and opened Leaders Flying Service.
The airport helped inspire the city and characters in Disney's 2013 animated movie, "Planes," which features a crop duster who yearns to be an air racer. In 2013, Leaders told the St. Cloud Times he didn't think it was unusual when movie scouts stopped by the airport a few years before because the business had always been open to the public and it wasn't unusual for folks to ask if they could wander around.
Leaders never strove for recognition; he simply wanted to share his passion for aviation with others, his children said.
"My dad was extremely humble. He drove a car until it died. He could afford things but you would never know it," said daughter Nicole Oftedahl. "He wouldn't charge people what he was worth. His passion was to help the average man to be able to afford to fly."
Leaders is survived by wife Diane of Clear Lake, children Kurt, Chase and Ryan of Clear Lake, Oftedahl of Sartell, Dena Leaders of Owatonna, Kerry Pietrini of Maple Grove, Clark Leaders of Plymouth, Suzette Spanier of Park Rapids and Heidi Hendrick of Spearfish, S.D.; sister Betty Menze of Fergus Falls and 15 grandchildren.
He was preceded in death by his parents, sister Elaine Lundgren and daughter Tiffany. Services have been held.