By Harry Minetree
Updated June 16, 1975 12:00 PM

During the Ice Capades at the Oakland Coliseum recently, four blue-white spotlights followed a remarkably buxom woman as she skated unsteadily across the ice. Would she stop short of the barrier? THUNK! WHIZZZ! And she flew bottom over bosom smack into the lap of a silver-haired gentleman in the front row. As she struggled to get away, the gentleman, as cool as the ice, ripped off her crimson skirt. The “lady” turned out to be a man! And the gentleman, who that night was hosting 3,000 crippled children and orphans whose laughter echoed down from the peanut gallery, was Edward J. Daly. The fact is that Daly is often surrounded by kids he is trying to help. But the world remembers him in a much different setting.

Just a few weeks earlier, Danang Airport was surrounded by Vietcong, and 1,000 South Vietnamese men, women, children and soldiers were desperate to board the last aircraft to sanctuary in Saigon. With a .38 revolver in his hand and a measure of booze under his belt, Daly—president and chairman of World Airways—pushed his boot into the face of a soldier who had just elbowed an old woman off the ramp of the taxiing jet. Then he laid out another soldier with a right cross. The World Airways plane, overloaded and damaged by a grenade, limped back to Saigon. For his effort to perform an act of humanity, Ed Daly received (besides a bruised kidney, loosened teeth and a chewed-up and bleeding forearm) reprimands from AID and the U.S. embassy, who had ordered him not to fly to Danang. But Ed Daly does not listen well to what he does not want to hear. After two days of roistering R&R, he alerted his crew that it was time to move out some orphans. Stopped at the Saigon airport by red tape that smacked of official recrimination, Daly herded the squalling babies aboard a DC-8 anyway. Even though the runway lights were extinguished and permission to leave denied, the plane took off for Japan. When the pilot radioed for landing instructions, the tower operator told him, “Gee, you can’t land here, because you never left there. So welcome to Yokota!”

Daly is a 52-year-old, florid-faced man with a gruff voice and the demeanor of a movie tough guy. He is partial to garish outfits and straight talk. He has been described as cruel, kind, ego-maniacal, generous, humane, impulsive, a savior, a hero and a boor. The rare few who have had a glimpse into his life-style know that he is a very rich man—with a self-made fortune that tops out at around $200 million—as well as a generous one to causes which interest him. According to the Wall Street Journal, World Airways—of which Daly owns 80.6% and rules the whole with a clenched fist—is the most profitable airline in the country. (In 1974 World had a net profit of $20 million on $100 million gross business. Daly insists it is the only profitable airline in the world.) He is an extremely complex man whose flamboyant business tactics carry over into his private life. Daly has been known to disappear for days, running the airline via long-distance telephone and Telex. And since his last spectacular exit from Vietnam, he has hidden behind a screen of awed, loyal executives, successfully avoiding scores of insistent talk-show hosts, movie makers and journalists. Why? “I’m tired,” Daly says, as he brushes the lapel of his cerise safari suit and slips two pearl onions off the toothpick from his double Gibson. “And I resent being depicted as a heavy drinker.” He smiles slightly and leans against a private bar stocked with fine spirits and Waterford crystal sufficient to slake the High King of Ireland. “I don’t like the idea of reading that I was reared in poverty, either. And I’m not a hero. I’m a catalyst. None of those bureaucratic bums in Saigon or Washington would have gotten off their butts if someone hadn’t defied them and gone in after the refugees and orphans.”

All that might possibly be true. Other things are certain: in just 25 years, Edward J. Daly, son of a Southside Chicago fireman, has built a debt-ridden business into the largest nonscheduled airline in the world. (It is also the third largest U.S. air carrier operating worldwide.) Daly has repeatedly pushed Congress for innovative types of low-cost mass air transportation, while advising the State Department on foreign policy objectives in the field.

“I started this industry,” says Daly of supplemental air carriers, with a familiar lapse of humility. “I founded and developed it.” No one who knows the business and Daly’s involvement in it will gainsay his claim.

When Ed Daly was 15 his father died, leaving a widow with four children to support. “Things did get a little tough then,” recalls Daly with uncharacteristic wistfulness. “I worked in the summers at stoop labor, topping onions, things like that.” Daly was studying for a degree in chemical engineering at the University of Illinois, boxing semi-pro and running a truck line on the side, when he joined the Army. During the war he served as a tech sergeant in the Marshall Islands. After it, Daly took a job in a Los Angeles bank and became involved in the new business of air freight and air cargo. But he was eager for something “big” of his own. At 27, he raised $50,000 (“We think it was in a poker game,” says Brian Cooke, his executive v.p. and closest aide) and bought World Airways, Inc. The little company had two leased war-surplus planes and “$250,000 worth of liabilities.” Determined to expand his fleet, but short of funds, Daly bought a fire-gutted cargo plane hangared at an R.A.F. base outside London. The price was a mere $75,000—one-tenth of what a serviceable model would have cost—but could it be fixed to fly? After 93 days of work in a brutal winter, Daly (unable to find nearby accommodations, he lived in a rented limousine), his one engineer and several local mechanics had the bird in the air. Six years later, after 18,000 profitable flying hours, Daly sold the plane for $175,000.

Ed Daly’s obsessive drive has produced a continuing series of business successes, as well as profound fatigue among his harried executives. “Mr. Daly,” says Cooke, “may not know or care what time of day or night it is, but he knows and lives this business and expects us to.”

World first hit big money by capturing some lucrative military and cargo contracts in 1956. Daly retired his original war-surplus planes and replaced them with two more that were bigger and newer. The new equipment and some lobbying brought World a contract to service military bases throughout the Pacific. Daly moved his company from New Jersey to Oakland, Calif. Shortly after evacuating Freedom Fighters from Hungary in the abortive 1956 revolution, he was awarded a contract by the Military Air Transport Service for daily passenger and cargo operations between Japan and the Philippines. He bought two more planes and snatched another plum—flying shuttles in support of U.S. missile programs.

Daly’s progress up the graph of the airline industry is unprecedented and unrelieved in its steepness. Out of 60 applicants, World was one of the 12 original supplemental air carriers certified by the Civil Aeronautics Board, and when the nonsked group was permitted to fly commercial charters, Daly went all jet. He quickly made headlines by conquering the monstrous logistics of flying 5,610 Chevrolet salesmen and their wives from 35 different cities to the New York World’s Fair, then to Nassau and back home. When a Boston tour packager went bankrupt and stranded 1,200 tourists in Miami and Hawaii, Daly, though not liable, flew everyone home. Furthermore, he gave them $152,000 in refunds from his own pocket in order to protect the reputation of nonscheduled airlines.

Though an unabashed hustler, Daly has nonetheless fooled people with some of his moves. When the Vietnam war was beginning to wind upwards in 1965, Daly began to cut down on his military deals. He wanted more commercial business. He bought the 94-branch First Western Bank in 1968 for $63.5 million and sold it six years later, to Lloyd’s of London for $115 million. Then Daly invested $2.5 million in equipment for a mammoth aircraft maintenance complex at Oakland Airport where his crew of 400 specialists diagnose and repair planes from most of the world’s major fleets. Now Daly is buying hotels in Jordan.

World Airways has 150 crew members and 330 flight attendants who fly and serve 14 jets and one lumbering but luxurious prop-driven Convair. Besides flying Daly and his retinue around the world on business, the Convair has been seen lifting off at odd hours for Lake Tahoe, where Daly has a home, or for London, where his 110-foot converted show barge, Astoria, is docked in the Thames near Hampton Court.

Daly has accumulated a lot, but he has also given a great deal away—time and money and, though he would be gruff about it, concern. For years he has been heavily involved in Oakland causes and organizations, from the Pop Warner Little Scholars to the United Negro College Fund. He was Grand Marshal of San Francisco’s St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1972. (He celebrated with a $10,000 party, which Charlie Finley, the parsimonious Oakland A’s owner, refused to match when he was similarly honored the next year.) Daly provided a plane for Bob Hope’s USO tour of Alaska on the condition that Hope would arrange with the military for Daly to be at the controls of a Phantom jet when it broke Mach 2. (He was.)

Besides being a contributor to the University of Santa Clara, Daly has established large scholarship funds in Korea, Mali and Jordan and probably elsewhere. (He won’t talk about them.) On one occasion, when Daly couldn’t rouse a sleeping priest in Saigon to give him a check for his parish, he impetuously offered the $10,000 to a Seventh Day Adventist hospital. Daly’s recent costs in Vietnam—beyond a profound disappointment with the U.S. government and fines from the Immigration Service totaling $243,000—were close to $2 million for the refugee and orphan flights, and he paid for them personally. “God knows,” Daly admits, “how much I’ll probably lose in government contracts for taking decisive action.” On the day after Daly’s unsanctioned Vietnam orphan flight, World Airways took full-page newspaper ads proposing a radical “no-restrictions, coast-to-coast fare of $89″—half that of the scheduled airlines. American and TWA immediately opposed the motion, while Northwest, the only other coast-to-coast carrier, asked for a hearing before replying. The Department of Justice wants the hearing, as do several other federal and state agencies, though Daly hopes it will be the consumers who finally decide the matter. As unlikely as the personality combination may seem, consumer advocate Ralph Nader is in Ed Daly’s corner.

On a recent Saturday Daly was in his sumptuous executive suite. The directors of his company (except for his wife, Violet June, who was in Spain with their married daughter) were there too, reading Xerox copies of a news report. “Approximately 42,000 refugees,” it said, “nuns, priests, children, primarily Catholics and former North Vietnamese who defected to the South, are on Phuquoc Island which is claimed by North Vietnam.” Behind his massive desk Daly spoke softly but authoritatively. His interests were immediately practical: “We need to know exactly where on the island the two battalions of Vietcong are located, what sort of weapons they have.” Daly usually wears open shirts and has a nervous habit of fingering the two talismans he wears around his neck, a medal from the Pope and a miniature revolver. This day he was in uncharacteristic shirt and tie. His only show of nerves was to whip off his glasses. “We need maps,” he said emphatically, “if there’s a deep-water port, and we can get some air cover and ships…”