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Faces: Memorial Day speaker led interesting life

Veteran Ralph Taylor, sitting on his deck in Crosslake, will be the Memorial Day guest speaker at Swanburg Cemetery. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Those attending the Memorial Day service at 11:30 a.m. Monday, May 27, at Swanburg Cemetery near Crosslake will have the honor of hearing from Ralph Taylor, airman first class with the Navy, sergeant first class in the National Guard and a pioneer in the sunflower industry.

Taylor 's career reflected his past. He grew up in the farming community around Olivia, Minnesota, in a family steeped in military tradition. His father and five uncles were all National Guardsmen stationed in Alaska during World War II, though the military gave his father an out upon realizing he had seven children back home.

"They said, 'You're in a demanding industry of farming,' and they discharged him back home. He would have liked to have gone, but it would have been a bad move," Taylor said.

Taylor said his brother served in WWII, stationed in Pearl Harbor during the attack with the USS South Dakota, one of the ships that was damaged but not destroyed in the 1941 attack. Taylor's sister was a nurse serving the armed forces in Alaska. Taylor was virtually fated to join up.

"When I was 18 I joined the National Guard," Taylor said. "When I graduated I joined the Navy and was sent to Great Lakes Naval Training Station. Then I was aboard USS Saipan, an aircraft carrier."

Taylor had many experiences in the service. He remembers experiencing historical events all from the perspective of an aircraft carrier.

"We were in the Caribbean about the time Fidel Castro landed there," Taylor said. "It was kind of an unsettled time. (Fulgencio) Batista was a dictator there and Castro was coming on and going to save the world."

Taylor was aboard the Saipan on Dec. 24, 1948, when the aircraft carrier took on a XHJS-1 helicopter and three HRP-1 helicopters before taking off for Greenland to assist in the rescue of 11 airmen who crash landed on the ice cap.

"We had one of the fastest aircraft carriers in the Navy," Taylor said. "They put one of those big banana helicopters on there and we steamed as fast as we could go out there."

A C-47 airplane on skis stole their thunder, however, by arriving ahead of them to rescue the airmen.

Later, when the Korean War started, Taylor was stationed at the Naval Air Training Command center in Milton, Florida, where they helped pilots get certified to fly.

"They had flight lines; 300 airplanes would line up every morning and it took a lot of guys to get them all ready," Taylor said. "Those pilots took about 19 flights to get certified to go solo."

Taylor was part of the crew that fueled the airplanes there, put them out, arranged them, changed tires and kept flight logs.

After he was discharged, Taylor returned to Olivia and at the request of a good friend, he enlisted in the National Guard. He decided to pursue a degree in agriculture and attended the University of Minnesota thanks to the GI Bill. During his time at the university he was given a hardship discharge so he could complete his education. There, he also met his wife.

"One of my high school friends and I used to buy beer on Friday night and say, 'Bring over some girls.'" Taylor said. "They brought her over and that's how I met her. I was living by St. Thomas and going to the university. We were married in 1952."

Together they raised a family with four children.

As a career, Taylor became a pioneer in agriculture, specifically in sunflowers. At first he started working as the county agriculture agent in Lichfield before working for California Chemical Company selling Ortho chemicals. A regular customer in Crookston asked him to join his startup seed company, and that's where things took off. The company was called Dahlgren & Company.

The company had four employees at the time, but grew to more than 300. Dahlgren & Company sold salted sunflower seeds in the shell, and in his time with the company, Taylor made a name in the industry.

The National Sunflower Association says Taylor "pioneered planting hybrid planting seed and confection sunflower processing."

Taylor recalls collecting sunflower varieties from other parts of the globe to improve the genetics of their own. One hybrid was made by crossing with a Turkish sunflower seed with long black, thin seeds. Another discovery came when a French company developed a sunflower that was ready in 100 days.

"I decided we could take advantage of that," Taylor said. "We moved the corn belt 100 miles north with that. Back then there were no sunflowers in North Dakota and now there are 200 million acres there."

Taylor was president of the company before his retirement in 1992. By that time he and his wife had already purchased land in Crosslake, where they live today.

In 1972, his brother-in-law had convinced him to buy undeveloped lakefront property there for a low, low price. There, he built his home and next door his brother built yet another house. This was where they came after retirement.

Taylor's children have since scattered. One lives in California, one in Crosslake as a banker, a daughter went to Elk River and another returned to Olivia. He has had a pretty full life, not the least of which was during his time in the military.

In an interview, Taylor recounted many of the astonishing experiences and sights from his time in the Navy.

He remembers the first time arriving at Great Lakes Naval Training Station where he and 120 other men turned in their clothes and then received a pile of sheets and clothing before going to bed, followed by awakening to the sound of a "Navy alarm clock," a Coke bottle bashing against a metal garbage can.

He remembers the first time they landed on an aircraft carrier, saying the carrier looked like a postage stamp in the water from above. Before the aircraft he was in came to a stop, it felt like they would drive off of the carrier into the ocean.

He remembers the feeling of towing a target for artillery to shoot at, and the sudden fear realizing the gunmen on the ground were aiming too far ahead of their aircraft and nearly hitting them instead of the target.

Taylor remembers the view of the sunset from the back of an aircraft carrier stationed at sea. Most of all, this coming Memorial Day he remembers all those who joined him in dedicating themselves to the defense of the country. He will likely draw from those memories when speaking on Monday.

"I feel humbled," Taylor said. "I don't feel like I deserve it. When people you love dearly ask you to do something, you do it. I guess I've been thinking about it. I never have spoken from notes. I do it from what the spirit moves me to say. I thought a lot about it, but it's easy to talk about Memorial Day when you think about all the young men and women who have raised their hands and offered their lives in defense of their country. It's moving. Every time I think of it."

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