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Family, Friends Say Goodbye To Thomas A. Luken

There's no doubt that the late Thomas A. Luken would have enjoyed the visitation held this morning in the undercroft of St. Xavier Church downtown.

A few hundred of his friends – some famous, most not – gathered in a somewhat raucous affair, with plenty of laughter, countless stories told about a man who had been at the center of Cincinnati politics since the 1960s.

He died Jan. 10 at the age of 92.

His grandchildren and great-grandchildren ran about the undercroft, having fun, as flat-screen TVs ran a continuous loop of photos from the life of the former Cincinnati mayor and long-time congressman, from family photos to portraits of Luken with Democratic presidents and politicians he served with in Congress.

At the center of the room sat his wife of 70 years, Shirley, warmly greeting each and every guest with a hug and a kind word.

The two-and-a-half hour visitation was followed by a memorial mass in the sanctuary of St. Xavier, where the large Luken family and many of their closest friends gathered for prayer.

Everyone at the visitation, it seemed, had a personal story to tell about his or her dealings with the man whose political career started in the 1960s by being elected city solicitor of Deer Park. Elliott Ruther, now the executive director of the foundation at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, recalled when he was helping his best friend from high school, John Cranley, run an uphill campaign to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Steve Chabot, who held Luken's congressional seat then and now.

Ruther said he and the congressional candidate, Cranley, were both 25; and Luken "took John under his wing" and threw himself into helping the young man campaign.

Luken, Ruther said, "reminded me of some of the tougher and wise Jesuits in my experience, especially in college,'' Ruther said. "Tom had a fire for politics an experience. "He was an artist who knew how to approach things from every angle, with politics as his canvass,'' Ruther said.

Cranley told WVXU that he believes he and Luken hit it off "because he had a core commitment to traditional social justice issues and so did I."

"He had this pragmatism so that he could work across the aisle and be more centrist to get things done; and I believed that too,'' Cranley said.

Cranley was not the only young politician Luken took an interest in. He was a mentor, of course, to his own son, Charlie Luken, who followed him into Congress for one term and served two stints as mayor of Cincinnati.

And there was Jerry Springer, whom Luken helped in his first successful campaign for Cincinnati City Council in 1971. Springer, now the host of a highly successful and notoriously raucous TV talk show, was at the visitation today to pay his respects.

Ohio Democratic Party chairman David Pepper was elected to Cincinnati City Council in 2001, long after Luken had left Congress and after his second stint on city council.

He said he didn’t really know Luken until he got involved in the early stages of Cranley's 2000 congressional campaign.

"He was as intense a person as I have ever seen,'' Pepper said. "It was a sight to behold. And those who knew him know what I'm talking about."

Everyone who knew him, Democrats and Republicans alike, remember him as a combative, passionate man who could make a loud and eloquent argument on any issue he believed in passionately.

"Politics for him was a serious business, about important issues, important principles,'' Pepper said. "He took it really, really seriously in a way that I really, really respect."

Luken won a special election to fill a vacant seat on the east side of Cincinnati in 1974, but lost when he ran for a full term later that year.

He decided to run in 1976 for the First Congressional District, on the west side, an he won. He was re-elected six times.

In 1976, John Fatora was a 17-year-old high school student in North College Hill. He became a volunteer in Luken's congressional campaign. Today, he came to pay his respects to the man who introduced him to politics.

"I was sort of inspired by Jimmy Carter that year, but I went to work for Tom's campaign,'' said Fatora, who lives now in Brown County. "I used to drive him around the district and he showed me what it was like to approach people and ask for their votes."

"He always told me, 'You represent the district, not a political party,''' Fatora said. "I've never forgotten that. That's what you want your congressman to be."

Howard Wilkinson joined the WVXU News Team after 30 years of covering local and state politics for The Cincinnati Enquirer. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Wilkinson has covered every Ohio governor’s race since 1974 as well as 12 presidential nominating conventions. His streak continued by covering both the 2012 Republican and Democratic conventions for 91.7 WVXU. Along with politics, Wilkinson also covered the 2001 Cincinnati race riots; the Lucasville Prison riot in 1993; the Air Canada plane crash at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in 1983; and the 1997 Ohio River flooding. The Cincinnati Reds are his passion. "I've been listening to WVXU and public radio for many years, and I couldn't be more pleased at the opportunity to be part of it,” he says.