By Anne Ryman The Arizona Republic Jan. 2, 2003 SCOTTSDALE - Joe Foss, a decorated war hero, former South Dakota governor, first commissioner of the American Football League and past president of the National Rifle Association, died Wednesday in Scottsdale. He was 87. Foss, a longtime Paradise Valley and Scottsdale resident, never regained consciousness after suffering an aneurysm in October. A prominent World War II hero, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt personally awarded him the Medal of Honor in 1943 after the Marine fighter pilot shot down 26 Japanese planes during the battle for Guadalcanal. Life magazine put Foss on the cover of its June 7, 1943, issue, calling him "America's No. 1 Ace." "With him, it was God, family and country. He lived by that," said his stepson, Dean Hall, 62, of Scottsdale. In his later years, he was a popular speaker on patriotism and leadership at schools, conventions and National Rifle Association events. "He was really a fine person because people could trust him to get the job done. He was dedicated to whatever he did," said Bob Corbin, former Arizona attorney general and a friend for two decades. Joseph Jacob Foss was born on April 17, 1915, on a farm near Sioux Falls, S.D. He once said his love for flying dated back to when he attended an air show in Sioux Falls, S.D., at age 12 that featured aviator Charles A. Lindbergh. But the road to becoming a pilot was not easy. A month before Joe's 18th birthday, his father was electrocuted by a downed power line in a lightning storm. The teenager had to help his mother and his brother, Cliff, work the farm. Working at odd jobs, he managed to scrape together enough money to afford flying lessons and graduate from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor's degree in business administration at age 24. Seeking a chance to fly, he joined the Marines and won his wings in March 1941, nine months before the United States entered the war. On Oct. 9, 1942, he landed his Wildcat on Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomons, the setting for the first U.S. land offensive in the Pacific. The 1st Marine Division had go ashore on Aug. 7, 1942, to seize a partly built airstrip that was later renamed Henderson Field. In October, the Marines were hanging onto the strip in the face of fierce Japanese efforts to retake the island and use it as a staging point to attack Australia, 1,600 miles to the south. Flying out of Henderson Field over the next three months, Foss and his fliers, a band known as "Foss' Flying Circus" for its acrobatic maneuvers, played a major role in defending Guadalcanal. Foss shot down 26 Japanese planes, earning a distinction as the first fighter pilot to break the 1918 aerial record of Eddie Rickenbacker, who shot down 25 German planes in World War I. In May 1943, Foss was called back to Washington, D.C., to lead the campaign for U.S. War Bonds. In addition to the Medal of Honor, the highest honor for valor in the United States, he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He also earned the Distinguished Flying Cross. Returning to South Dakota, he ran the Joe Foss Flying Service and organized the South Dakota Air National Guard. He soon found his way into politics. A Republican, Foss served in the South Dakota Legislature for five years before becoming, at 39, the youngest governor in the history of the state in 1955. He served two two-year terms. In November 1959, the club owners who were forming the American Football League selected Foss as commissioner, hoping that his contacts in Washington could help them in an anticipated struggle with the long-established National Football League. As commissioner, Foss indulged his lifelong passion for hunting and fishing as host of The American Sportsman on ABC. Foss resigned as AFL commissioner on April 1966. Less than two months later, the league announced plans to merge with the NFL. Foss turned to television again, appearing on his syndicated series The Outdoorsman: Joe Foss from 1966 to 1974. The programs drew criticism from environmentalists and advocates of animal rights. He encountered controversy again as president of the National Rifle Association from 1988 to 1990. On Jan. 29, 1990, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a pistol in his hand. "I say all guns are good guns," he told Time for its article on gun control. "There are no bad guns. I say the whole nation should be an armed nation. Period." Friend Todd Rathner, 37, of Tucson said among NRA board members only the actor Charlton Heston outshone him in terms of celebrity. "He had a great sense of what America is all about, and how precious our freedoms are, and how important it is to fight for them every day, in every way you can," said Sandy Froman, 52, of Tucson, second vice president of the NRA. Foss found himself unexpectedly in the news last February when Sky Harbor security guards pulled him aside, in part, because he was carrying his Medal of Honor and someone thought the star-shaped award could be used as a weapon. He also had two dummy bullets in his pockets. One was a hollowed bullet on a key chain. The other was a piece of silver metal molded into the shape of a bullet and given to him by Heston. Security guards agreed to let Foss mail the key chain home to himself, but confiscated his "silver bullet." Foss was visiting Beaverton, Mich., in October when he suffered an aneurysm. He had planned to give a speech in support his great-nephew, Justin Mishler, who had applied to attend the U.S. Military Academy. He was later moved from a hospital in Michigan to Scottsdale where he and his wife lived. Foss, is survived by his wife, DiDi; son Frank Foss of Mankato, Minn; daughter, Mary Joe Finke, of Billings, Mont.; and stepdaughter Connie Foss. Funeral arrangements are pending at Scottsdale Bible Church.