Coach, teacher, writer, front-porch philosopher
Edwin W. Lukens, beloved coach, teacher, writer and front-porch philosopher passed away peacefully on Jan. 24, 2019, at the age of 97. Born on Dec. 9, 1921, to Randolph and Grace (Grove) Lukens, Ed grew up in Skunk City, on the west side of Syracuse, where he fished in Woodlawn Reservoir, played football with the Brights and the Learys and hunted deer and woodchuck and raised rabbits for food during the Great Depression. He attended Central Tech High School, where he was a standout in track and field, his senior-year long-jump of 22 feet, 11 inches topping the nation’s high-schoolers and earning him several college scholarship offers.
But WWII intervened, and after graduating from Central Tech in 1942, Ed enlisted in the U.S. Army. He served as a telephone operator in the 948th Signal Service Company in North Africa and Italy, and he was near Rome when the war ended. During the six months before he was shipped back stateside, Ed read widely and participated in several inter-military track meets, where he was once given a pair of track shoes by a British officer who took pity on a man running barefoot on a cinder track. Ed also toured the Vatican, where he received the Pontiff’s personal thanks for his service.
After being honorably discharged on Nov. 30, 1945, Ed enrolled in Syracuse University, where he returned to track and field, going undefeated during his final two years in his two best events, javelin and long-jump. Upon graduation 1950, Ed became a successful teacher and well-respected coach at his high school alma mater. During his tenure at Tech, Ed coached the basketball team to an undefeated season, winning the City Championship game against the top parochial school in front of a sold-out crowd in the Onondaga War Memorial. During the summers, when classes were not in session, Ed dug commercial gas lines, hunted for uranium in Canada and continued to fish every chance he got.
“Coach” moved to Westhill High School in the late 1960s, sharing his calm demeanor and coaching talents with a new community of students and athletes in his physical education classes and on varsity sports teams, which won several sectional titles. He coached cross-country in the fall, outdoor track in the spring and indoor track in the winter, the last existing mainly because Ed pestered SU into opening Manley Field House and its too-short banked track to high school runners, jumpers and shot putters. Ed initiated track and field programs for city and local area youth, and he officiated at youth, scholastic and collegiate meets for decades.
Although Ed never married or had children of his own, many of his former students recall moving personal interactions with the man they called “Coach,” and they still consider him a major influence in their lives. His former “rummies,” as he called them, have gone on to great success in several fields: academia (countless PhDs), the fine arts (painters, sketchers and high school department heads), the military (graduates from each of the academies as well as a four-star general), politics (a White House advisor to several presidents), and business (the heads of several corporations).
Ed was an avid outdoorsman, athlete and writer. Before retiring, he moved to Skaneateles, where he speculated in land development, canoed and fished the lake in the spring and fished through its ice in the winter. As a minority-owner in a wilderness fishing lodge on the Caniapiscau River in northern Quebec, Ed spent many summers guiding its clients and he was featured in several articles that appeared in Outdoor Life magazine.
Around the time of his retirement, Ed began competing in local Masters Track and Field meets and found that he retained an advantage over athletes his own age. As a member of the Syracuse Chargers for more than 30 years, Ed set 48 records in six different age divisions, including a dozen world marks. In 2002, competing in the 80-84 age group at the National Championships in Boston, Ed won four gold medals and set three world records: in the 60-meter hurdles, the long jump and the triple jump. Six times Ed was named the Outstanding Track and Field Athlete in his age group. He has been inducted into the USA Masters Track and Field Hall of Fame, as well as the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame. Track and field took him to cities in Australia, South Africa and Europe, although his favorite place to compete remained Madison Square Garden in New York City. Ed retired from competition at the age of 85, because, as he explained, “It got too easy. All I had to do was trip forward and someone would hang a medal around my neck.”
As a teacher and coach, Ed was a generous supporter of students, athletes, colleagues, friends and relatives, as well as the occasional stranger. In retirement, Ed continued to support various humanitarian causes, the Syracuse Chargers and Syracuse University, which honored him with its “Letterman of Distinction” award in 1995.
Ed’s short stories, often not-so-thinly-veiled non-fiction, were printed in newspapers and outdoor publications. They featured life during the Great Depression, life in the Labrador wilderness, float-plane crashes, the occasional death, competitive sports and the often unrecorded details of everyday life in Onondaga County. When Ed was 92, good friend Dave Reed collected and published Ed’s essays and short stories in a book bearing the title “Words of Wisdom: From Skunk City to Skaneateles.” His first book-signing was held, appropriately, at Vernak Farms Country Store in Borodino, where every Saturday morning Ed could be found sharing coffee with ‘the boys’ and solving the world’s problems. Profits were earmarked for Westhill High School and the book was a success, drawing former students and classmates from both Central Tech and Westhill, as well as good neighbors and old friends.
Ed’s life is perhaps best summed up in a line from a speech that he delivered to the Westhill Senior Class of 1978: “People grow old by deserting their ideals. Years wrinkle the skin, but to give up enthusiasm wrinkles the soul. . . There is not a person here but has in his power to leave as a heritage to those that follow, the grandest thing on earth – character.” Ed’s character was evident to all who knew him, and it was featured prominently in articles written about him by former local reporter and chronicler Sean Kirst.
A special thank-you to the staff at Peregrine Senior Living at Onondaga Hill, whose attentive care provided great comfort in the last months of Ed’s life. Ed was predeceased by his older brother Randolph in 2012, and he is survived by his brother’s four children, Ed’s own nephews and nieces: James Lukens of Amesbury MA, Thomas Lukens of Viroqua WI, Jane Walma of White Cloud MI, and Sara Christman of Oxford OH – along with the countless many he influenced throughout his long life.
Calling hours will be from 1 to 5 p.m. April 27 at the B.L. Bush and Sons Funeral Home, 10 Genesee St. in the village of Camillus.
Please share your condolences and sign Ed’s guestbook at blbush.com.