Former Burlington Northern CEO Lorentzsen, 99, dies

WEST ST. PAUL -- Norman M. Lorentzsen's career in the railroad industry spanned 40 years, starting when he worked as a brakeman in high school and culminating in him running the show as Burlington Northern's chief executive officer. Lorentzsen di...

 WEST ST. PAUL - Norman M. Lorentzsen's career in the railroad industry spanned 40 years, starting when he worked as a brakeman in high school and culminating in him running the show as Burlington Northern's chief executive officer.

Lorentzsen died Sept. 21. He was 99.

A lot of the success was due to his "toughness, perseverance and willingness to do a job readily and well," said his son, Tom Lorentzsen.

His father's life was dedicated to family, work, and his faith, Tom Lorentzsen said.

"He also loved Concordia College because it enabled him to do something nobody else in his family had done, which was get a college education," he said.


Although his own father had only completed the third grade, Norman Lorentzsen would also go on to graduate from Harvard's advanced management program.

"The interesting thing about him is he came from a very poor immigrant family," Tom Lorentzsen said. "His early life was not the easiest."

When he was a young boy, Lorentzsen's family lived in Horace, North Dakota, which did not have a public school, his son said. He was the youngest of five and his parents didn't have money to pay for all five of their children to attend school, so Lorentzsen stayed home one year.

The next year, when his family moved to Dilworth, which had a public school system, he resumed his grade school education.

Then, later while he was attending Concordia College in Moorhead, he found himself in a similar predicament and had to drop out of college for a year. He worked full time as a brakeman that year and was able to go back to school the next year. During all his years of college, he always worked part time as a brakeman for the Northern Pacific Railway, his son said.

"He was able in both cases to overcome adversity and keep going," he said. "He was an incredibly hard worker."

While he was working as a brakeman and living in Dilworth, he would take the train to college in Moorhead each day.

"The engineer would slow down when the train got to Moorhead and drop him off," Tom Lorentzsen said.


The bonus of being two years behind most of his peers at school was that he found himself in classes with a girl named Helen Broten.

"That allowed him to meet my mother," his son said.

In 1941, after he had graduated from college, Lorentzsen enlisted in the Navy, serving as a bomber pilot, flying a seaplane in the Pacific. He also married Helen.

Norman Lorentzsen told a story about having a near-death incident while he was a pilot.

"They were shot at by the Japanese in the Pacific," Tom Lorentzsen said. "His plane was so shot up they had to throw everything - all the equipment and all the stuff inside - out of the plane to keep it airborne. They flew some 200 miles back to the Navy ship."

The plane only had one engine and it was only a few hundred feet above the sea during the flight back, he said.

"They landed right by the ship and the plane sank. The Navy had to rescue them out of the water. But all 10 of them inside the plane were saved. He was very proud of that."

When he returned to the United States, Lorentzsen became an assistant trainmaster for the Northern Pacific in Duluth. By 1978, he had worked his way up to chief executive officer of the railroad, which had become the Burlington Northern through a series of mergers. In 1981, he retired from the then-St. Paul-based railroad, which is now known as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.


Lorentzsen was dedicated to getting his family together every year, even though they were spread out across the country, with one daughter in Washington, one daughter in the Twin Cities and Tom in North Dakota.

"We were the typical Minnesota family and would go to Balsam Lake in Wisconsin every year - from about 1972 to 2001," Tom Lorentzsen said. "After 2001, my dad gave the lake place to Concordia."

Once he did that, Norman Lorentzsen arranged for family members to vacation together each summer at Pelican Lake.

"He would take 30-some of us to the lake and pay the bill for us," Tom Lorentzsen said. "Family was incredibly important to him."

He was a very involved and focused businessman. Lorentzsen believed in giving back to the community and served on numerous corporate boards, as well as serving as a Concordia regent. He was also active in the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce in several leadership roles. He was also proud of his Norwegian heritage and had been knighted by the King of Norway.

In addition to his son, Lorentzsen is survived by his second wife, Donna Boller, whom he married following Helen's death in 2005; daughters Mary Nesvig and Katherine Johnson; 12 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Oct. 21 at St. Stephen's Lutheran Church in West St. Paul.

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