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Originally published Saturday, May 31, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Airline pioneer Milton Kuolt "left footprints"

Milton Kuolt, who died Friday at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, started Horizon Air, one of the nation's first regional carriers, in 1981.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In all his 80 years, Horizon Air founder Milton Kuolt never entered a room quietly.

He'd throw open the door, step in wearing cowboy boots and a duster coat, and howl his signature greeting: "Yo!"

"That was his thing. 'Yo.' He'd just yell it, no matter where he was," said Bill Peare, Mr. Kuolt's longtime friend and a vice president at Horizon. "In a meeting, at a party, on the golf course. He was a character, for sure."

Mr. Kuolt, who died Friday at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, started Horizon Air, one of the nation's first regional carriers, in 1981. He sold the company to Alaska Airlines in 1988. Mr. Kuolt began his long career at Boeing, and later started Thousand Trails, a private, timeshare-style campground company, in the early 1970s.

In his many roles at different companies, Mr. Kuolt was known for his formidable work ethic, his sense of humor and his unflappable allegiance to all of his employees, regardless of their rank.

"Milt didn't care if you were a baggage handler or in the boardroom. He was concerned about everybody on his team," said Bill Endicott, who worked for Mr. Kuolt at Thousand Trails and Horizon, and later wrote "Remember the Magic: The Story of Horizon Air."

According to one of the stories in Endicott's book, Mr. Kuolt once overheard a man being rude to one of his employees at the ticket counter. "He leaned over and told him he wasn't welcome to fly on Horizon Air anymore," Endicott said. "Milt said, 'Nobody treats my employees like that. I don't care if you have to ride to Sun Valley on a horse!' "

Dee Dee Maul, one of the original team members at Horizon, said Mr. Kuolt made a concerted effort to treat everyone who worked for him with equal respect and camaraderie.

"If something needed to be done, he'd do it. He'd help out behind the counter. He'd sling bags. Everyone loved him for it," she said.

Maul remembers that in the early years of Horizon, Mr. Kuolt used to get to work at 4 a.m. and deliver boxes of doughnuts to the flight crews before the first flights took off for the day.

At the company Christmas party, at friends' birthday parties and at formal functions — even the black-tie variety — Mr. Kuolt was "always the one in the middle of the room. He'd wear cowboy boots with a tuxedo, for sure," Maul said.

Many of Mr. Kuolt's friends remember him goofing around, telling funny stories and making fun of his own mistakes. One time, Mr. Kuolt dressed up as El Guapo from the movie "Three Amigos," for a fiesta-themed party. The photos from that day still make Mr. Kuolt's friends laugh.

Outside of work, Mr. Kuolt was no less enthusiastic. In recent years, he'd often hop into his trademark Hummer and cruise around Cle Elum, Kittitas County, where he lived with his youngest daughter, Jamie Milagro Kuolt, 17.

Up until November, when his emphysema began worsening, Mr. Kuolt spent his days riding snowmobiles, golfing and "telling stories about old friends," Peare said.

Mr. Kuolt is survived by seven children: Milton Kuolt III, Suzanne Kuolt and Sandra Kuolt, all of Scottsdale, Ariz.; Ronald Kuolt, of Switzerland; Randolph Kuolt, of Kent; Maria Kuolt Ottolino, of Burien; and Jamie Milagro Kuolt; and 22 grandchildren.

Joe Clark, chairman of Aviation Partners and Mr. Kuolt's one-time co-worker, said Mr. Kuolt was "one of those people that left a mark wherever they went."

"He's left footprints — huge footprints — in all of our lives."

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745

or hedwards@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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