Retired exec dies a 'heroic pilot'

Phill Pines and his dog, Mike, turn around on Pines' 2,300-acre property west of Portage, Wis., in June 2007. The property is part of a Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative "Important Bird Area" that spans an area of riverfront along the Wisconsin River. Pines was killed when his plane crashed west of Roma Lodge Monday evening.

Phillip Pines was a man of action, whether it was bicycling around his Highland Park neighborhood early in the morning to keep fit, helping establish a North Shore synagogue or learning to pilot a plane when he was in his 60s.

That was just his personal life. Professionally, Pines began working alongside his father, Leo, selling semitrailers in 1958. By the time Pines retired last year, he was president and chief operating officer for Great Dane, the second-largest trailer manufacturer in the world, according to the company.

But for all his accomplishments and wealth, Pines was "unassuming and unpretentious," recalled friend Pete Premo. Pines would greet everyone, from the person who filled up the gas tanks of the planes to high-ranking businessmen, with equal deference, Premo said, calling his friend "very down-to-earth."

Pines' last act has added another adjective to his epitaph: heroic.

The retired executive, 76, died Monday evening after he crashed his small plane in a field while trying to make an emergency landing at a Racine, Wis., airport. Police in nearby Mount Pleasant said Pines acted "in a heroic manner" by flying the plane to an open area, avoiding several "populated subdivisions" before he crashed.

Pines had taken off from Central Wisconsin Airport, about 10 miles south of Wausau, and was headed to Waukegan when he experienced fuel problems about 10 miles west of Milwaukee, officials said.

"He reported difficulty in maintaining altitude and he attempted to divert to theRacine airport," said David Stroube, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.

As news of his death spread through the trucking industry, Pines was remembered with admiration and respect.

"He left an indelible mark on our company, successfully ingraining into the organization a culture of strength and excellence," Great Dane President and CEO William Crown said in a statement.

Crown's uncle, well-known Chicago business leader and philanthropist Lester Crown, said in an interview with the Tribune that "everyone in the industry had a terrific respect" for Pines.

Crown invested in Pines' trailer company in the 1980s and it later acquired Great Dane, a move Crown equated to "the minnows swallowing the whale."

Pines "was a marvelous human being, as able as he could be," Crown said. "He knew the industry from the ground up and knew all aspects of the business better than anyone. He was an all-around executive, and that's how he ran the business. And he did it superbly."

Success allowed Pines to pursue his passions — hunting, fishing and flying were main ones — in a big way.

Premo, who said he met Pines about six years when Premo was selling his airplane hangar at the Baraboo-Dells Flight Center, said Pines' love of nature and pheasant hunting were among the reasons he bought 2,500 acres of land in Wisconsin.

Flying was a more recent passion, something Pines took up in his 60s. Premo said he and Pines recently flew to Minnesota to have lunch and that Pines had purchased the plane that crashed — one of about a half-dozen he's owned — because it could travel to Florida without refueling.

Closer to home, Pines and his wife, Joan, were among the first congregants of Am Shalom in Glencoe. The synagogue's founding rabbi, Harold Kudan, recalled Pines telling him that, despite his retirement, "he was so busy he didn't know what to do first. … He was interested in so many things."

Pines was also close to his daughter and three sons, friends and neighbors said.

"He was a wonderful family man," said Nettie Isenberg, a former longtime neighbor in Highland Park until the Pineses' recent move to another local neighborhood. "He was a very active man, a wonderful part of the community."

Lester Crown attributed some of Pines' success to the fact that he was a "very common person" who "emanated sincerity."

"He was a quiet man. There was nothing braggadocio about him. He never showed off. He was a great listener," Crown said. "When business problems came up, he listened to everyone's thoughts and then came up with what should be done, very simply and quietly."

Carlos Sadovi is a Tribune reporter; Susan Berger is a freelance reporter. Tribune reporter Sue Ter Maat contributed.