Jim Kowalski: Friends Perplexed At Grocery Chain Founder’s Strange Death

Jim Kowalski died when he fell into a plane propeller during a fishing trip, leaving friends of the grocery chain founder perplexed at how an experienced pilot could make such a fatal mistake.

Kowalski was traveling to Ontario with a friend for a fishing trip when he attempted to bring his Cessna amphibian plane to the shore of Dee Dee Lake. As the plane approached the shore Jim Kowalski stood outside the plane atop the floats, but lost his balance and fell into the plane propeller.

He was rushed to a nearby hospital, but died of his injuries. Police determined that Kowalski’s death was an accident.

Bruce Harrison, who runs Surfside Seaplane Base and instructs pilots on amphibian landings, said it seemed strange that an experienced pilot like Jim Kowalski could make such a mistake.

“The cardinal rule is you never go forward of the strut,” he said. “That strut is your lifeline — if you’re out, you want to hang onto that and never go forward of that.”

The friend taking the fishing trip with Kowalski said the accident happened so quickly, he “heard a noise, and [Kowalski] was gone.”

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Kowalski and his wife, Mary Anne, founded Kowalski’s Markets in 1983, growing it into a chain of nine stores that employ close to 1,200 people.

The stores fill a niche, selling high-end meats and vegetables with a layout taking that adopts a European feel. The stores grew to have a large presence in the Twin Cities area and beyond.

“Despite a relatively small footprint, Kowalski’s offered consumers choices, particularly local ones, in a format that was warm and friendly,” said Matt Kramer, CEO of the St. Paul Area Chamber of Commerce. “His engagement with the community brought to mind a rural grocery in the heart of a small town.”

Jim Kowalski was also remembered for his deep devotion to his community. Even grocery rival Tres Lund, CEO of Lunds and Byerly’s, called Kowalski a great businessman and merchant, saying he would be greatly missed.