So many eulogies were delivered for Carl Pohlad last January that it seems superfluous even to comment on his life, except that aspects of it are so poignant, compelling, and instructive that it is hard to resist doing so.
It is tempting to focus on his childhood in Valley Junction, Iowa (now West Des Moines), an outpost of 4,000 railroaders and cement-plant workers near the banks of the Raccoon River. Pohlad spoke of having envied the “rich people” of Valley Junction, the people who lived on “the hill,” far from the low-lying neighborhood where the Pohlads lived, where unpaved streets turned to muck every spring and Carl’s mother, a laundress, turned to her children to help her make a living. In reality, there were no “rich people” in Valley Junction—no one you and I would call rich—and there was no hill, just a gentle rise that must have felt like a hill to a youngster who pulled wagons of fresh laundry to the homes of railroad foremen and storeowners.
How poor were the Pohlads? Twenty-six passenger trains a day departed Valley Junction in 1933. Carl left for college by freight train that year to save the price of a ticket. In his young manhood, he played football at Gonzaga while running a business selling repossessed cars, boxed for prize money, and received three bronze stars and a battlefield commission in the European theater of World War II before he entered banking.
There was always banking, but from that came other endeavors, a vast variety of businesses: bottling, insurance, real estate, aviation, and bus transportation. With his friend Irwin Jacobs, he invested in a company that in the 1980s controlled Watkins, Inc., the marketer of food products; the InstyPrints printing company; a string of collection agencies; and several boatmakers. They had smaller interests in long-distance moving, storage and warehousing, furniture rental, and pest control. Pohlad invested in movies, a Minnesota wine distributorship, the Piper Tower in Minneapolis. With Jacobs, he attempted to buy the Churchill Downs racetrack and the Walt Disney Company.
He was most associated with the Minnesota Twins, which he bought in 1984, in part to keep the team from leaving Minnesota. He is remembered for bringing two World Series trophies into Minnesota. I remember his first night as an owner. He was dancing—briefly, but literally dancing—in the stands near third base as fans called out his name.
Oddly enough, those recollections might have irritated him. When I last interviewed him in 1995, he was 79 years old and had no interest in talking about anything in his past.
“All that old stuff doesn’t matter,” he said. “What’s important is what comes next—and I don’t mean just for me, but for anyone. Your vision: That’s important! The future! You have to want to do something—to be part of something.”
At 79, he still wanted to be part of a lot: banking in Texas (“one of the last frontier states for growth”) and entertainment—“cable, video, what-have-you,” he said. “The question is, ‘What is the delivery system of the future?’ It’s shaping up now . . . and it’s just a thrill to see all the possibilities. Everything is global, and the possibilities are unlimited.”
“You know, it’s so exciting to be in business today,” he said. “So much is happening in so many industries all over the world. But you need to be involved. If you keep your mind alert and stay productive, you’ll live a long life. It doesn’t have to be in business, and if you are in business, it doesn’t make any difference if it is a big business or a little business . . . . It’s what you make of it.”
No one should feel sorry for him. For most of his life, he was in good health. He had a close family, good friends, and a lifetime of achievement. He had fun—the kind of fun he wanted to have. He could help anyone he wanted to help, and he exercised that ability vigorously, if quietly.
Was his life complete? No one’s is. If I could have granted him a wish, it would have been for him to see the completion of the new Minnesota Twins stadium, the builder of which is featured here in the April issue.