The sandbox in the front yard of Gordon E. Batdorf's house was a favorite hangout for kids on his block. After all, he always had the latest and greatest Tonka Toy trucks.
"All of the neighborhood kids loved to come over to our yard to play," said one of his daughters, Ann Lutnicki, of Maple Plain. "And at least once a week, my brother would leave a truck in the driveway and Dad would run over it and get a flat tire."
Such was the life of one of Tonka Toys' top executives in the 1960s.
Batdorf joined the Mound-based company in 1946 shortly after it was formed and rose through the ranks to become its president during a period of rapid growth. He died Aug. 11 at his home in Plymouth after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was 95.
During his tenure coleading the former Minnesota-based toymaker, Tonka began expanding its products overseas and rolled out its "Mighty Dump Truck," the first in a line of bigger trucks that became the firm's bestselling toy, said Ron Pauly, a former Tonka employee who is now a board member of the Westonka Historical Society.
"People started buying those mighty dump trucks like crazy," he said. "It became the company's most recognizable toy."
Born in 1920 in north Minneapolis, Batdorf was an only child. Despite his success later in life, he didn't have a very promising beginning — at least when it came to school.
"He was kind of proud that he didn't do very well in school. He especially hated Latin," Lutnicki said.
In World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and was stationed in England as a P-47 fighter pilot. He was a member of the 63rd Fighter Squadron and 56th Fighter Group, sometimes referred to as "Zemke's Wolf Pack."
When he returned home, he married his neighborhood sweetheart, Connie Granger.
While attending accounting school at night, a friend told him about a small, little-known manufacturing company in Mound that was looking for a bookkeeper. He applied and got the job, joining Mound Metalcraft the year it formed in 1946. The company started off making gardening tools, tie racks and bathroom hardware. But it soon switched to toy vehicles and was renamed to Tonka Toys, a riff on nearby Lake Minnetonka.
The company went public in 1961, and Batdorf became its president in 1964. He led the company alongside R.L. Wenkstern as Tonka expanded its products abroad and bought a barbecue grill business to help keep the factory, which mostly employed women from nearby small farm towns, churning all year.
"He made everyone wear a name tag [on the factory floor] so he could talk to them by name," said daughter Karen Henley, of Plymouth.
She also recalled the huge Christmas parties Tonka would throw for employees, particularly the shiny piles of wrapped gifts for their children.
Batdorf resigned from Tonka in 1969 during a time of upheaval and restructuring. The toymaker later moved its production to Mexico and was acquired by Hasbro.
After he left Tonka, Batdorf started a consulting company and invested in several start-up companies.
"He was always into something," said Lutnicki. "Not everything worked."
His list of projects over the years included everything from a soft serve ice cream business to computer networking to organic fertilizer. In the 1970s, he was also brought in to help turn around the struggling Larson Industries, a boat manufacturer in Little Falls, Minn.
When he was semiretired, he decided to go back to school and received a business degree from Metro State University in 1980.
A devoted family man, he also enjoyed exploring a long list of hobbies with his wife and children that included skiing, flying and sailing.
"One of his favorite things was to take a few of us in a plane up to International Falls for a soda," said Lutnicki. "Then we'd come right back."
Other survivors include his wife, Connie, of Plymouth; daughters Robin Springer of O'Fallon, Ill., and Gwen Batdorf of Plymouth; son William "Scott" Batdorf of St. Paul; seven grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren and two great-great grandchildren.
Services have been held.