John Lukehart’s heart was never lukewarm.

Jim Charleton, a college friend from the early 1970s, remembered him as “an eager and kind farm kid who was more interested in Heidegger than McGovern.” He was “a man of ideals without falling into idealism or compromising his dignity.”

Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council, said he approached everything he did with “energy and zest. He embraced every single day.” As president of the Arts Council board since 2002, “he was a tireless ambassador of the arts,” Wilson White said.

Rob Breymaier, executive director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, who worked with Lukehart at the Leadership Council of Metropolitan Open Communities, described his former supervisor as “collaborative, not hierarchical. He had great ideas and insights. He was the kind of person I always aspired to be like. He consistently lived his convictions.”

John Lukehart, 56, former chair of Oak Park’s Community Relations Commission, former president of the VMA, former head of the Leadership Council, art collector and advocate, died on Dec. 11, 2007 following a two-year battle with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer.

Born on the family farm in Laurel, Iowa, he graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in “Distributed Studies,” focusing on sociology and political science. He moved to Oak Park in 1980 and joined the Leadership Council, a non-profit organization specializing in civil rights issues and fair housing advocacy.

Peter Levavi, a colleague from the Leadership Council, described him as “unique in his commitment to social justice and unflinching in his determination to achieve racial equality. But more important, he was the kindest, warmest, humblest public servant I have had the opportunity to work with.”

Breymaier said he started the Illinois Housing Roundtable to coordinate the activities of the various fair housing groups in the Chicago area. “We work better together,” Breymaier said. “That was his philosophy in a nutshell. Being a white person working on racial issues isn’t the easiest thing. You have to build trust. No one ever questioned him on that front. People knew he was working for their interests.”

Wilson White said promoting the arts in Oak Park was Lukehart’s passion and, in effect, his second career. He was largely responsible for Oak Park’s Public Arts Ordinance and helped pay to lease the first two large sculptures placed in Oak Park out of his own pocket. The idea had been floating around for years and going nowhere, Wilson White said. Lukehart had the ability and contacts to see it through. He was also a proud supporter of Off The Wall, a summer arts employment program for teens.

“He never missed an opportunity to encourage people to appreciate and support the arts,” she said.

The cancer, diagnosed in late 2005, was aggressive, requiring numerous surgeries and at one point, a section of his skull had to be removed, forcing him to wear a protective helmet. But it didn’t slow him down. He continued to make public appearances and act as the village’s most visible champion of the arts.

Lukehart and his family arranged to donate his brain and several organs to science.

He is survived by his wife, Mary Daly Lewis; his children, Jennifer and Jason Lukehart; his step-children, Colin and Alison Lewis; his mother, Donna (nee Stewart); his siblings, Lynda (Morris) Wolken and Greg (Cheryl) Lukehart; his in-laws, Sharon, Patrick (Lorraine), Edward (Sharon) and Michael (Stella) Daly; and many aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. He was preceded in death by his father, L.J. “Mike” Lukehart.

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations to the Oak Park Area Arts Council, 123 Madison St., Oak Park 60302 and the Oak Park Regional Housing Center, 1048 South Blvd., Oak Park 60302, are appreciated.

Visitation was held Dec. 14 at Drechsler, Brown & Williams Funeral Home. Funeral services took place Dec. 15 at First United Church of Oak Park, followed by interment at Forest Home Cemetery in Forest Park.

He never complained throughout his ordeal, said Wilson White. “He was a warrior.”

His wife, Mary, related that right up to the end, he was remarkably affirmative, saying over and over, “I have been so lucky.”

Many of those at the wake and funeral found themselves saying the same thing.

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