Walt Lukken, longtime community leader in LaGrange and father of LaGrange Mayor Jeff Lukken, died Wednesday afternoon at Hospice LaGrange. He was 85.
“I can’t say enough good things about my buddy,” said Dr. Cliff Rainey, who was Lukken’s friend and served with him on the LaGrange Development Authority.
“He was a great man and a true patriot,” Rainey said. “He was a fierce competitor, either with a shotgun or on the tennis court.”
Rainey once asked Lukken, who was born in Worthing, South Dakota, why he moved to LaGrange.
“(Lukken said) have you ever spent a winter in South Dakota?” Rainey joked.
But LaGrange was a community Lukken came to love and tirelessly promote for more than 20 years.
“Dad was a wonderful father, a warm friend and mentor to his children and grandchildren,” said Mayor Jeff Lukken. “He was an endless spring of ideas, imagination and vision. Dad was the best example of a selfless volunteer who was genuinely interested in everyone he met. He absolutely loved LaGrange and believed that service to your community was everyone’s responsibility.”
Walt Lukken was a former chairman of the LaGrange-Troup County Chamber of Commerce and a founding member of the LaGrange Development Authority. Lukken Industrial Drive was named in his honor in 1991.
During his life, he served on numerous boards and organizations including, two terms as the president of the Chamber of Commerce; chairman, and later the director, of the LaGrange Industrial Authority; former chairman for the Troup County Republican Party; and he served on the board of the former C&S Bank. He chaired the LaGrange College Fund campaign in 1969. Lukken was one of the first to be awarded the Georgia Volunteer of the Year Award for his work in LaGrange.
He was part of the team that hired Jane Fryer to be president of the chamber in 1973.
“He’s been my mentor for my whole career,” said Fryer, who now works for the Meriwether County Development Authority. “He worked tirelessly to make economic development a success here.”
LaGrange was one of the first cities to form a development authority, Fryer said, and when Callaway Mills sold its properties to Milliken and 2,500 people lost their jobs, the need was even more evident. Lukken’s work led to diversified industry in the industrial park that bears his name, and being from South Dakota actually helped him talk to prospects.
“He would tell people, ‘Moving to LaGrange was the best thing I ever did,’” Fryer said. “Everyone at the time was hesitent to move to the Deep South. He convinced them they’d never regret it. They needed to hear it from someone who came from somewhere else.”
Jim Hamilton, who worked with Lukken and has an industrial park in LaGrange named for him, remembered Lukken as a friend.
“He was instrumental in this community,” Hamilton said.
Fryer said Lukken was a morning person and he’d often be at the chamber with lights on, coffee ready and the newspaper read before anyone else arrived.
“He was just a joy to work with,” she said.
Rainey said he never had as much fun as when he worked with Lukken.
“If you can’t sell LaGrange, you can’t sell anything,” Rainey said, and Lukken was a great salesman and “PR man” for the city.
Lukken, Rainey and other members of the development authority often would take prospects out on Rainey’s houseboat to “wine and dine” them. Rainey and Fryer both remember a trip on the boat that didn’t go well.
“We were going along and I couldn’t hear the propeller,” Rainey said. “Pretty soon I realized we were passing the same tree in the lake we’d passed before.”
Eventually, Rainey and Lukken both jumped in the water to investigate the problem. The propeller had come off the boat.
Hours later, they were rescued.
“We ran out of drinks. We ran out of peanuts,” Fryer said. “My husband was standing on the dock, furious that we were so late.”
It worked out alright in the end, however. The prospect, Wheelabrator, wound up coming to LaGrange.
On dry land, however, Lukken was much better prepared and could always tell prospects about the infrastructure and utilities they could expect in LaGrange.
“He covered everything,” Fryer said. “That’s why that park has been so successful.”
There will be a memorial service celebrating Lukken’s life at First United Methodist Church of LaGrange at 11 a.m. Saturday. The family will receive friends following the service at a reception held in the church’s Methodist Ministries building. In lieu of flowers, donations to West Georgia Hospice, First United Methodist Church of LaGrange or St. Peter’s Catholic Church are appreciated.
A full obituary appears on page 2.