Don Loegering has a habit of interrupting. But he’s not being rude, because the person he’s usually interrupting is himself.
He stops in mid-sentence, his eyes take on a sparkle and he extends his hand out in front of him as if to signal the sudden change in conversational direction. “Oh!” he says excitedly. “I’ve got to tell a story.”
And he’s got a lot of them. He spent 20 years as a fighter pilot — including seeing combat in World War II and the Korean War. And he did two stints as a Peace Corps volunteer. But we’re just scratching the surface of his life story: He’s been a prosecutor, businessman, choir director, woodworker and photographer. Did we mention professional singer?
“It’s been varied,” he said of his career. “I’ve planned very few things in my life. They’ve all just sort of happened.”
One reason he’s had time to build such a diverse résumé is that he’s 93 and still working. He runs a photography studio — some of his work is in an exhibit at the Basilica of St. Mary — and does custom framing at a shop in south Minneapolis.
“My kids chipped in and bought me a gold watch when I turned 65,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “They thought they were going to retire me.”
His outlook on life was shaped when he got the bug to fly. He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to pass the physical to join the Army Air Corps (this was before it became the Air Force), but a friend suggested that he try anyway, pointing out, “All they can do is say no.”
From that point on, anything he’s been interested in doing, he’s tried to do. “All they can do is say no” has become his mantra.
“Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Slow down, you idiot. You’re 93 years old.’ But I don’t want to slow down,” he admitted.
His photo exhibit, which is part of the basilica’s celebration of its 100th anniversary, is a particular point of pride. Loegering, who joined the parish in 1936, has been fascinated with the building all his life. The 50 photographs, which are on display through Sept. 8, feature a multitude of views of the exterior and interior.
“I’ve taken pictures of churches all over the world, thanks to being in the Air Force and the Peace Corps,” he said. “I’ve seen the grand churches in England and Europe. People will say, ‘Does this really compare to those?’ And I say, ‘Yes, it does.’ I find this place to be one of the most photogenic.”
Basilica official Johan van Parys said Loegering sees the building in ways that others miss.
“I have been director of liturgy and sacred art at the basilica for 20 years,” Van Parys said. “Thus, I fancy myself knowing the building intimately. Don’s photographs, however, have made me realize I have much to learn about the building as he keep providing us with new angles and perspectives.”
At one point, Loegering said, he was thinking about giving up photographing the church, but Van Parys insisted that he keep going “because I am sure he has much more to offer.”
Loegering, of St. Louis Park, doesn’t own a TV or computer. In his photography studio at 1905 3rd Av. S., he still does all his work on film.
“I’ve never made the transition to the digital age,” he said. “I realize that digital [photography] is a lot faster, but I don’t feel pushed for time. I can take my time.”
Loegering and his nine siblings grew up within view of the basilica in a house where the freeway overpass now stands. Later the family moved into an apartment building “just across Loring Park.”
He was on his way to being an English teacher when he encountered a recruiter looking for volunteers to become single-engine fighter pilots. “It sounded interesting,” Loegering said. “That’s how, a year later, I ended up in China flying a Black Widow P-61 as part of World War II.”
After the war, he stayed in the military and became a lawyer. Married by then, he was assigned to Japan. “I was a chief trial officer — a prosecutor” who dealt with cases involving the occupation forces.
Despite having a desk job, he kept up his flying. He was among the first pilots to undergo jet training, which turned out to be a do-it-yourself program.
“There were no two-seat trainers” in which an experienced pilot could teach a novice, he said. “Those would come about three years later. The first time you flew it, you went all by yourself. So, being used to conventional airplanes, I started the jet at 100 percent power. When I broke through the ceiling [cloud cover], I looked down [at the airspeed indicator] and saw I was going 400 miles per hour. And I said, ‘Maybe I should slow down a little.’ ”
He eventually got the hang of it well enough that he flew 100 missions in an F-80 Shooting Star during the Korean War.
After retiring from the Air Force in 1963, he and his family — now consisting of five kids — settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, his wife’s home. He became president of a real estate escrow company, where one of his clients turned out to be the Grateful Dead rock band.
“I went with some paperwork to a mansion they were renting, and I had to send the kids back to wait in the car,” he said. “There were a bunch of naked people swimming in the pool.”
Meanwhile, he was pursuing his own musical interests. After going back to college to get a degree in music, he spent weekends directing church choirs. In 1974, he auditioned for a paid position singing with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. “I figured that all they could do was say no,” he reasoned. They said yes.
A new mission
His wife died in 1977. When the last of their kids left home, he decided to enter the Peace Corps. While he understands that some people consider that a strange move for someone with a military background, he insists that the two endeavors dovetailed neatly.
“It’s often said that the military is full of peaceniks,” he said. “That was certainly true in our case. We didn’t want to go to war. We believed that by having a strong military we were preventing war. It wasn’t an adventure; it was a job.”
One of his Peace Corps tours was in Jamaica, where his assignment was to teach woodworking in remote villages. For transportation, he was issued a 125cc dirt bike with which to navigate the jungle roads. He averaged 1,500 miles a month and a crash every six weeks.
“It was the most unstable vehicle ever built,” he said.
With California no longer seeming like home, he returned to Minnesota in 1983. He continued to sing, performing with, among other groups, the Minnesota Chorale and the Dale Warland Singers. He gave up performing in 2008.
“I was 85,” he said. “The voice was still there, but the body rebelled.”
Of course, Loegering never stops, he just finds a new adventure to jump into. And now is no different. Even before his exhibit closes at the basilica, he’s at work on his next project: the parish’s annual calendar, which will feature 14 of his photos — one for each month plus the front and back covers.
“I’ve had one picture in the calendar before, but I’ve never had the whole calendar,” Loegering said. “This is really exciting.”
Sounds like another story in the making.