Obituary: Joe Lueken, Bemidji grocer who shared the wealth

  • Article by: JENNIFER BROOKS , Star Tribune staff writer
  • Updated: July 30, 2014 - 7:35 PM

 

Joe Lueken could have sold his busi­ness for a for­tune, but there was some­thing he valued more.

The Bemidji gro­cer made interna­tion­al head­lines two years ago when he passed up an op­por­tu­ni­ty to sell his thriv­ing Lueken’s Village Foods stores to a na­tion­al chain and in­stead gave the busi­ness to the employees who helped build it. Lueken died at home on July 20 af­ter a long bat­tle with can­cer, leav­ing behind lov­ing fam­i­ly and friends and a wealth of stor­ies and fond mem­ories.

He was 72.

“My employees are large­ly re­spon­sible for any suc­cess I’ve had, and they de­serve to get some ben­e­fit from that,” Lueken told the Star Tribune in 2012, when he was get­ting ready to re­tire af­ter 46 years as a gro­cer and com­muni­ty phi­lan­thro­pist. His four sons lived far away and had jobs outside the family business, so rather than sell his three su­per­mar­kets to a stran­ger, he set up an employee stock own­er­ship program that trans­ferred the com­pany to his work­ers and paid him a share of future profits.

“You can’t al­ways take,” he said at the time. “You also have to give back.”

Lueken gave a great deal. The Bemidji community had helped his business thrive for almost 50 years, and he wanted to return the favor. He established college scholarships, raised money for Bemidji State University and countless community causes, supported public television, stocked the community food shelf and helped launch anti-bullying campaigns at the public schools. With Janice, his wife of 52 years, he set up the Lueken Family Foundation to continue that benevolent work.

“Any success that we had in this community, he wanted to return it to the community,” she said. “He’s left a huge void.”

But when people in Bemidji trade Joe Lueken stor­ies, they don’t talk about how much he gave. They talk about his ev­er­y­day acts of kind­ness, his sense of hu­mor, his hon­es­ty, his work eth­ic. They talk about a man who was de­cent to his very core.

“Joe touched so many lives,” said Brent Sicard, one of those Lueken touched. Sicard, who start­ed his ca­reer as a night jan­i­tor at the gro­cer­y in 1998 and today serves as pres­i­dent and CEO of Lueken’s Foods Stores Inc.

Sicard has heard plenty of Joe Lueken stor­ies. There was the employee who re­turned home from visit­ing her hus­band at a dis­tant hos­pi­tal to find that her boss had mowed her lawn for her while she was out of town. There was the sign paint­er who not only got seed mon­ey from Lueken to start his new busi­ness but who came home one day to find $200 worth of gro­cer­ies wait­ing on the front porch.

On the Lueken’s Face­book page, his longtime employees post­ed their fond mem­ories of a boss who read the newspaper in the break room with everyone else and who would show up for work at 4 a.m. to start stocking shelves.

“He was a stocking machine,” said Barry Bowar with a laugh. Bowar started working at Lueken’s 25 years ago and now runs its store in Wahpeton, N.D. His trust in Lueken was so complete that he moved his family to Bemidji, without knowing what he’d be paid once he got there. He knew Lueken — a boss who braved prairie blizzards to make the weekly trek to his North Dakota store — would take care of him.

Joseph “Joe” Anton Lueken was born Dec. 10, 1941, in Ains­worth, Neb., and grew up work­ing in his fa­ther’s ba­ker­ies. He moved to Bemidji in 1966 to man­age his broth­er Hank’s lakeside gro­cer­y store, which he later bought and ex­pand­ed.

“He conducted business with a handshake,” Janice Lueken said. “If he gave you his word, it was written in stone.”

“Most of us choose to be hon­est,” Sicard said. “I think Joe was in­ca­pa­ble of be­ing dis­hon­est.”

He is sur­vived by his wife; sons Michael, Jeff­rey, Joseph Jr. and David Lueken; three grand­child­ren; and bro­thers Lloyd and Michael.

 

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