NORTH MANKATO — Lyle Pearson Sr. had great war-time stories to tell: A B-17 bomber pilot in World War II, he flew 50 combat missions until being shot down over Italy in 1944 and held as a prisoner of war until 1945.
He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with Clusters and the Purple Heart.
Pearson spent much of the rest of his long life using his distinguished service and compelling stories as political capital to gain better services for veterans of all eras.
“You couldn’t help but know Lyle if you were involved in veterans' issues,” said Tom McLaughlin, a Vietnam veteran who learned from and worked with Pearson on lobbying for veterans.
Pearson died Friday at age 92.
“He was a really good family man — family meant a lot to him,” said his son, Lyle Pearson Jr., one of seven children born to Pearson Sr. and his wife Katherine, who died a year ago.
Pearson said his father, born in Montevideo, came to Mankato after the war and lived in Lewis Field barracks near Sibley Park — a subsidized housing complex for returning vets.
The family moved to North Mankato in 1950. “My dad always joked that we moved into North Mankato in 1950 just in time for the big flood in 1951,” Pearson Jr. said.
He was a county probation officer and eventually became chief of court services in Nicollet County, retiring in 1983.
In retirement, the couple traveled and spent time at their cabin on Duck Lake, but work on veterans issues, volunteerism and activity in the DFL party remained a high priority for Pearson.
McLaughlin, who often appeared with Pearson at school talks and in front of lawmakers or military officials, said Pearson had a ferocity in working for veterans.
“He was very forceful and strong in his beliefs. He went at it 100 percent,” McLaughlin said. “And he knew what he was talking about. I think that’s why he moved up the ranks and became the national commander of the DAV.”
Pearson served as national commander of the Disabled American Veterans from 1975 to 1976.
Pearson was also one of just six American citizens who in 1974 was a guest of the Soviet Union to participate in the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the end of World War II. (Pearson’s prison camp was liberated by Soviet troops.)
McLaughlin said Pearson didn’t limit the scope of his lobbying work. “You have guys who just argue for specific veterans issues, or just something they’re interested in. Lyle argued for all veterans' issues.
“He was a great model for me, he showed how to lobby and how to do it the right way.”