Carl Douglas was a risk-taker who never ran from a challenge, built a multi-million company from scratch and loved to fly airplanes. But he lost his life when those traits collided during a snowstorm in the middle of the night at 4,200 feet.
Douglas, 54, was pronounced dead Thursday afternoon after local authorities discovered the wreckage of his turbo-prop airplane high atop Swede Mountain southeast of Libby. John Smith, 43, a passenger in the plane also died in the crash.
The two men were travelling from Coolidge, Ariz., to Libby for a business meeting Wednesday at Stinger Welding, where Douglas was the CEO and Smith was an employee.
It was a heartbreaking loss for Douglas’ friends and family, who described him as an outgoing, ambitious man who always followed his dreams.
“He was a big dreamer, and he was a leader,” said Linda Reid, Douglas sister. “But because of those dreams, he always went after them. He never let things stop him, even weather conditions. And everyone in the family knows he was pushing it because he had a meeting on Friday.
“He broke the cardinal rule: There are old pilots and bold pilots, but you never hear about any old, bold pilots.”
Douglas grew up with three sisters and a younger brother in Florence, Ariz. He joined his father in the construction industry when he was in high school and later founded a series of businesses in construction, bridge-building and welding.
He made a small fortune by building bridges across the network of interstates that pass through Phoenix and other metro areas in the Southwest. And he helped rebuild the Bay Bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area after an explosion caused two levels of the bridge to collapse in 2009.
His most recent venture was opening a branch office in Libby for Stinger Welding, which is based in Coolidge, Ariz., near his hometown of Florence. The branch office, which opened in 2009, became one of Libby’s larger employers almost overnight.
The Stinger branch in Libby was heavily subsidized by government grants intended to promote economic development. It ran into financial trouble this year when bills piled up and contracts dried up.
Douglas’ family said his intentions to help the Libby community by creating jobs and a sustainable business were overshadowed by Stinger’s financial trouble.
“I know he wasn’t perfect. Nobody is,” said Debbie Holyoak, another one of Douglas’ sisters. “But he was a good man who always had a smile on his face and always tried to help people. I don’t know what possessed him to start the business in Montana, but it was needed and he wanted to help the community.”
Susan Lamb, another one of Douglas’ sisters, said her brother was an entrepreneur who worked hard for what he had. Her parents, she said, had little money while she and her siblings were growing up.
“He was a hard worker who loved his job,” Lamb said. “He wasn’t a guy who just sat and pushed a pencil or something. He was always on the job, at the site.”
While in high school, Douglas stood out as someone determined to succeed. A natural leader, he was elected president of the class of 1977 at Florence High School.
During his senior year, he orchestrated a student walk-out in protest of his principal’s decision to punish a volleyball coach for allowing college volleyball players to practice with the high school team, a violation of the athletic conference’s rules.
“Almost every kid in that school walked out that day, and he’s the one who led the protest,” said Holyoak, who graduated in the same class as Douglas. “He had talent. He was a leader.”
Douglas parlayed his leadership skills into a seat on the Florence City Council. He served as a councilman from 1986-1990.
Tom Rankin, the mayor of Florence, said he has known Douglas’ family for decades.
“He was a little bit younger than me, but we have worked together,” Rankin said. “He gave to a lot of organizations, and he didn’t go out and look for publicity. He was behind the scenes.”
Mike Hatch, who said he was Douglas’ best friend when they were kids, remembers taking rides in a small plane owned by Douglas’ father. Even then, Douglas enjoyed adventure and, specifically, flying.
“He was either going full blast or he wasn’t going,” Hatch said. “It was no surprise that he got his pilot license. He loved to fly, and he’s been doing it for more than 20 years.”
Douglas used his plane to travel between his homes in Arizona, Montana and Mexico. He often took friends and family on fishing excursions off the Mexican coast.
“He always treated my kids so well, all seven of them,” Holyoak said. “He took all of them to Mexico and would go camping with them. They all loved him so much.”
To his family, Douglas was known almost exclusively as “Joe.” His mother gave him the nickname after watching episodes of the TV series “Bonanza,” starring Michael Landon as “Little Joe.”
Reid said her children will always remember drinking slushes that their “Uncle Joe” made them whenever they would visit. She said he “probably wore out several blenders making slushes for the kids.”
“He was very kind and gentle person,” Reid said. “But, like most men, he wore a suit of armor. You wouldn’t know he had a kind tender heart.”
Douglas married late in life, and he treated his nieces and nephews like his own children, his sisters said.
Douglas left behind a wife, Stephanie Jordan, and an 11-year-old daughter, Paige.
Funeral services will be held 11 a.m. Dec. 27 at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Florence.
Reid said her brother may have been only 54 years old, but he lived enough life to fill 108 years.
“You only live once. But if you do it right, that’s enough.” Holyoak said. “He died doing what he loved to do. He loved to fly.”