BEMIDJI -- Joe Lueken, longtime businessman and community supporter, died early Sunday morning after battling cancer, his family said Monday. He was 72.

His son David told the Pioneer that Lueken died at his home in Bemidji, surrounded by family.

“Simply put, our father wanted to leave the world a better place," his son Michael said in a brief statement.

Lueken certainly accomplished that goal.

Originally from Nebraska, he spent a portion of his youth in South Dakota, attending high school in Mitchell and college in Yankton.  

He moved to Bemidji in 1966 to manage his brother’s grocery store in downtown Bemidji. He later bought his brother out and expanded the business, opening a larger store on the north side of town. He opened the south store in 2000.

"I have regarded Joe as one of the hardest working people I've ever run into," said Keith Johanneson, whose family-owned Marketplace Foods has competed with Lueken's for half a century. "He was both a gentleman and an honorable man to work with in the industry. We probably had one of the best relationships as competitors in the state of Minnesota. It's been a great experience competing with a man of his caliber."

Lueken famously sold his company -- consisting of the two Bemidji stores and a third store in Wahpeton, N.D. -- to his employees through an employee stock ownership plan that took effect Jan. 1, 2013.

But he was known for more than business acumen. He was also an active advocate for the community and was noted for his philanthropic support to BSU. He played an integral role in launching BSU’s Community Appreciation Day in 2005.

“Joe Lueken was compassionate, caring and courageous,” BSU President Richard Hanson said in a release. “(H)e expressed those things in his service to the university. I think he really showed us the power of commitment as he interacted with us on almost a daily basis.”

Hanson called Lueken’s death  “an incredible loss for the community and for Bemidji State in particular.”

The Lueken family has funded and endowed “numerous” full-tuition scholarships as well as supported the college’s music and athletic programs, the release said.  

This spring, Lueken partnered with Wendell Affield, the Bemidji Community Food Shelf and Lueken's Village Foods to launch a community meat program to provide ground meat to food shelf clients.

“Our community has lost a true community steward,” said Bemidji Mayor Rita Albrecht. “As a business person, Joe built an outstanding organization at Lueken's Foods. As a volunteer and donor, he made the difference for countless community projects. Joe Lueken's legacy will stand as an example of ‘how to be a leader’ and forever benefit the people of Bemidji and beyond.”

The Joseph and Janice Lueken Family Foundation, the charity that bears the name of Lueken and his wife of 52 years, supports a variety of community groups that include public television and public schools. It unveiled a plan last August to fund the Safe Schools Ambassador anti-bullying program throughout the elementary schools in the Bemidji School District.

Jim Hess, superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools, praised Lueken’s devotion to enriching area classrooms through the foundation.

"Joe Lueken and the Lueken Family Foundation have been tremendous supporters of public education in Bemidji for years and years. It's a great loss to the community and to the school district." Hess said. "Joe was a terrific person."

Funeral services will be private, although a public visitation will be from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Cease Family Funeral Home of Bemidji. Interment will be at the Evergreen Cemetery in Northern Township. In lieu of flowers, memorials are preferred to Sanford Hospice of Bemidji.

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