The term “serial entrepreneur” was probably invented to describe Rodney Palmer Burwell.
The Orono resident and Minnesota Business Hall of Fame recipient founded and was involved in dozens of businesses — his career imprimatur was vast. But his family, faith and community lives were just as rich.
“When we got married, I figured it would be an adventure and never boring,” said his wife, Barbara Peterson Burwell. “I was totally right. Rod lived many lives in his 76 years. He kept me on my toes.”
Burwell died on Palm Sunday after a lengthy battle with numerous health issues.
Born in Minneapolis on New Year’s Day 1939, Burwell spent much of his childhood in the Dakotas, where he honed his prodigious work ethic.
He graduated from the University of North Dakota with degrees in industrial engineering and business administration. While in college, he started a successful janitorial service to help pay for his education, ultimately selling the business to a professor.
He served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1961 to 1967 in Germany and Vietnam, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. After his military service, he founded Proform Inc. in 1969. There, he created a fiberglass reinforced plastic cover that prevented corrosion on barges — an invention that revolutionized the river barge industry.
He founded Burwell Enterprises Inc., which specialized in reviving underperforming businesses. He owned the Madison Concourse Hotel in Wisconsin, the Shady Roost Fishing Resort in Ontario and 24 John Deere locations throughout the Midwest, among other companies. He had past ownership stake in Underwater Adventures at the Mall of America, Xerxes Corp. and Chippewa Water.
Burwell served on numerous boards related to education, health care and his faith. He served as a trustee for the University of St. Thomas, a founding member of its law school board, and president of the Opus College of Business, the Blake School, and as chairman of the board for Augsburg College. He volunteered for many community organizations, as well as corporate boards, including TCF Financial, Ameriprise Certificate Co., RiverSource Life Insurance Co. and Opus Northwest.
“He was a great, great human being, totally honest, a true friend,” said Stanley Hubbard, CEO of Hubbard Broadcasting Inc.
Burwell was the first investor to back Hubbard’s satellite television venture — now DirecTV. But back then “everyone said it would never work. Rod stood shoulder to shoulder with us.”
Burwell was involved at Wayzata Community Church, the Snowmass Village Chapel in Colorado and an elder at Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina. He met his wife, Barbara Peterson, Miss USA 1976, at Bible study — the two married on Valentine’s Day 1982.
“He was a Renaissance man; he loved classical and organ music, opera, ballet; he was an athlete himself,” his wife said. “He was a beautiful downhill skier, like a gazelle.” An avid pilot, he loved boating, fishing, hunting, golfing and scuba diving. He visited all seven continents.
“He was good at everything — business, and he was a great father and husband,” said John Morrison, owner of Central Bank and a friend for 45 years. “There was nothing he was bad at.”
Burwell was preceded in death by his first wife, Ara; a daughter, Ara Elizabeth, and a son, David, who all died in a 1980 plane crash. In addition to his wife, he is survived by three sons, Peter, Blake and Michael, and two brothers, Bill and John.
Services have been held.