Jack Lupton’s passing marks new era for Chattanooga

The passing of Jack Lupton this week marks a new era in the history of Chattanooga. The baton of leadership has been passed.

The Lupton name, Chattanooga’s most powerful and wealthiest during the 20th Century, is all but gone with the passing of Jack and the recent passing of his cousin, Tommy Lupton (half second cousin, to be exact). Tommy’s brother, Fred, remains in Chattanooga, but, to my knowledge, none of their generation has a name bearer remaining in our city.

Jack’s grandfather, John T. Lupton, bought the rights to bottle Coca-Cola from Joe Whitehead, very soon after Whitehead and Ben Thomas secured the bottling rights for Coke in 1899 from owner Asa Candler in Atlanta. Soon, Lupton was choosing friends and relatives to become millionaires across the country by being given bottling plants, or “a license to print money” as some later called it. Meanwhile, Lupton, as a “parent bottler” was becoming one of the richest men in American history. His Lyndhurst mansion in Riverview boasted 34,000 square feet, 10 beds, 12 baths, an indoor pool, bowling alley, and pipe organ. J.T. Lupton’s son, Cartter, died in 1977, and his probated will revealed an estate worth hundreds of millions, exceeding the estate of Howard Hughes, probated the same year.

Cartter’s son, Jack, grew the bottling enterprise into an even greater empire, selling for $1.4 billion in 1986. But his signature achievement proved to be his vision and philanthropy for the city. “I love Chattanooga. I desperately love Chattanooga,” he said the same year his family pocketed over a billion dollars. He then backed up his claim with hundreds of millions of dollars given and raised for the city, contributing to a community renaissance celebrated worldwide as a model for civic transformation.

Jack Lupton was a great but complex man. In several ways he appeared a paradox. He could be fairly accused of being an elitist, developing one of the greatest and most exclusive clubs in the world, the Honors Course. At the same time, he determined to operate differently than his father and that generation by implementing structures to greatly expand the decision makers in the community through vehicles like Chattanooga Venture, Vision 2000 and ReVision 2000. A direct line can arguably be drawn from Chattanooga STAND’s recent survey of over 25,000 citizens for advice on how to shape the city’s future to the visionary leadership of Jack Lupton.

Ironically, Jack Lupton was the man most accused of using a handful of power structure figures to control the city.

And there may be some truth to some to the accusations. Judge Walter Williams tells the story of Jack making a single phone call to quell one of Chattanooga’s most volatile moments — near riots due to the city commission’s refusal in 1976 to name Ninth Street after Martin Luther King, Jr. A majority of commissioners dug in to support Jack’s cousin Tommy on the issue. But then Jack read a headline while vacationing in Monterey, Calif., “Lupton in Chattanooga Fights Renaming of Street in Honor of M.L. King.” It didn’t say Tommy Lupton, just Lupton, so, according to Judge Williams, Jack decided to put an end to it. “He made one call to city hall,” said Judge Williams, who noted that thousands of people were marching and protesting and failing to sway the city commission. “One call. That is a true story.”

On the other hand, Congressman Zach Wamp said the legend of Lupton as kingmaker, anointing elected officials, was urban myth. “My experience was exactly the opposite of that,” Zach said. He did not know Lupton and other such notables when he first ran for Congress. “I had to work really hard even to get their attention.”

Lupton is also an enigma in that he is credited, and rightly so, for leading the renaissance of Chattanooga — by such authorities as the Tennessee Encylcopedia of History and Culture. Yet his own brother-in-law criticized him for getting to the game too late, after serious efforts began in the sixties and seventies to clean up the pollution. “He should have started sooner,” said Scotty Probasco. “He was just slow getting there. When he got there, he came on the scene strong.”

The enigmatic nature of Jack Lupton was best summed up by former Chattanooga Times publisher Paul Neely, one of the few people to ever dare to assess the man. “Depending on the view, he can be gentle, modest, courtly, and reflective. He can also be rude, domineering, profane, and impatient.”

His profane streak may have been foreshadowed by a section of plaster crashing onto the “Lupton pew” from the ceiling of the First Presbyterian Church in 1966. Around that time, Jack Lupton began his own journey away from the conservative Presbyterianism of his forefathers to a worldview less dogmatic and more secular. “Jack Lupton was able to impossibly, perversely enjoy cutting against the grain,” said Rick Montague, who served as Lupton’s first executive director of the Lyndhurst Foundation, the entity claimed by many to be most responsible for Chattanooga’s transformation. Formerly called the Memorial Foundation, and chaired by First Pres pastor Dr. James Fowle, Jack Lupton changed the name, the focus, the mission, and the recipients. This philosophical change had an immeasurable impact on the future of Chattanooga.

The fading of the Lupton name reflects the diluted influence of many great families in Chattanooga, due to both fewer family members themselves as well as the fact most of these families no longer own the great companies that made them wealthy. But I would dare to suggest that Jack Lupton would want this announcement of a new era in Chattanooga to inspire hundreds, even thousands of citizens to step up to the plate to provide great leadership for a great city. In his father’s day, it could have been argued that a handful of the captains of industry made up the lion’s share of city leadership. Jack Lupton spent years expanding that pool of leadership to scores, even a few hundred of citizens willing to be active in the new public forums to shape the city.

Today, the pool is available to several hundred, even thousands of those committed to work, sacrifice, engage, dialogue, and create vision for Chattanooga. You do not need a prominent last name. Wealth is not a requirement. Race and gender are not in the way. May the passing of one of the great men in Chattanooga’s history inspire us all to seize this great opportunity. The baton has been passed to all of us.


Dean loves feedback. Leave a Reply