Stephen D. Towle 

1932  ~ 2023

Obit Photo Steve Towle2    NWA Captain, Stephen D. Towle, age 91, of Orono, MN passed away on December 14, 2023. Born on June 16, 1932, in Winnetka, IL, he was the third child of Julia and Julius Towle. Steve grew up in Winnetka, Illinois, and graduated from New Trier High School. During his teen age years, he earned the Eagle Scout rating. He also earned a degree at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, IA, while completing the Air Force ROTC program at Coe College. Upon college graduation Steve was commissioned a 2/Lt. in the US Air Force.

   After completing USAF pilot training and earning his silver wings, Steve was further trained in the F-89 Northrup Scorpion as required to be a fighter interceptor pilot for the Air Defense Command (ADC).  ADC assigned Steve to Otis AFB at Cape Cod, Massachusetts. During this era, the fighter interceptor crews on the Atlantic coast saw their share of hostile intercepts provoked by Soviet probes of our air defenses. His fellow pilot and wingman, Chuck Leonard, said that in the Air Force, “No one ranked above him in terms of skillful performance as an aviator.”

   During his Air Force years, Steve married his first wife Alice F. Towle. During his assignment to Otis AFB, the couple’s first child ‘Steve’ was born.  After five years of active-duty service, 1/Lt. Towle separated from the active Air Force and sought airline employment.

   Steve was hired by Northwest Airlines on April 04, 1959. His first crew assignment was copilot on the DC-4. During his 33-year career, Steve participated in the transition from propeller, to turboprop, to jet powered airliners. He flew the Douglas DC-6, Lockheed Electra, Boeing 707 series, the Boeing 727, the Douglas DC-10/40, and Boeing 747 Classic. The 747 was his favorite.  

Obit Photo Steve Towle1

   Midway through his career, Steve’s and Alice’s marriage failed. In time Steve married Janet ‘Stevie’ Gilbert, who had five children of her own. The blending of these families was handled well. ‘Stevie’ matched Steve’s strong pro-people personality. 

 When off-duty from flying—and in his retirement—Stevie played a pivotal role in keeping Steve grounded with her steadfast support. Steve also fostered numerous lifelong friendships, from as far back as his grade school years. He was known for his ability to bring people together and make things happen. His confident, proactive nature not only made him a top-notch pilot but also a family member and friend who supported and uplifted others, as evidenced by his generosity during tough times.

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   His passion for aviation continued with a 33-year career as a pilot, climaxing by ranking among the top 70 senior pilots at Northwest Airlines. In addition to his aviation achievements, Steve was an avid real estate investor, captivated by the intricacies of acquiring and selling properties. The highlight of his investments was a shared horse farm with Roberta and Dick Schmidt, who remained close to Steve as caregivers and confidants.

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   Steve delighted in organizing events for family, neighbors, and friends that created lasting memories. For a dozen years, he convened his family annually in Lanesboro, MN to share fun relaxing, biking, canoeing, golfing, and attending the theater. He biked and canoed with his grandchildren well into his late 80s—and kept them laughing with his delightful sense of humor. He continued to try new things, participating in a book club and choir in his later years. His favorite moments were reminiscing with friends and family about shared experiences, his piloting adventures, and world travel.

   Steve is preceded in death by his first spouse, Alice F. Towle, and is survived by his beloved spouse of 46 years, Janet (Stevie) Gilbert; his children, Steve (Margaret), Jeff (Kate), Barry (Debra); stepchildren, Chris (Clay), Diane (daughter-in-law), Lee, Ann, and Mitch; grandchildren and great-grandchildren; nieces; and his dearest friends.

   In a musical tribute, his grandson Nate composed the song "F-89 Scorpion," immortalizing Stephen's legacy as a pilot of the historic fighter jet.

(- Debra Towle and Bill Day)