Alan Lurie Always Answered the Call to Duty

A Tribute By Roger Yohem

While “on duty,” Alan Lurie was a tough advocate for the principles and people he believed in. In my years working with him, I saw a man with intensity driven by discipline and persistence. Those who clashed with him over his views and values typically judged him to be rigid and combative.

When “off duty,” his persona flipped to that of relaxed patriarch with a dry wit. He loved family and fly-fishing, the camaraderie of close friends, and his hometown Cleveland Browns and Indians.

His life was one of unique stress. Nationally, he was known as a distinguished U.S. Air Force brigadier general, and for 80 months as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Statewide, he was the high-profile, assertive executive director of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association for 13 years. To SAHBA members and staffers like myself, he was simply “The General.”

In September, Lurie died at age 84 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

“Alan was a class act, a wonderful person. Impact fees were my major issue and he took them on head-on like a brigadier general would. I appreciated him for that,” said builder/developer Peter Herder, former board chair of SAHBA and the National Association of Home Builders.

As a fighter pilot in June 1966, Lurie was shot down and held as a POW in North Vietnam for more than six years. Despite suffering a compression fracture of the spine, he was immediately brutalized. Years later in military and news reports, he characterized the Viet Cong as “professional torturers,” and the beatings, isolation, hunger and endless stress “a terrible thing to endure.”

Like fellow pilot, now-U.S. Sen. John McCain, Lurie ended up in Hoa Lo Prison, known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” When he was released in February 1973, Lurie credited his endurance to his faith in the Lord and confidence in America.

After recovering from his injuries, the Ohio State University grad returned to flight duty. Back in Cleveland, then-Browns owner Art Modell wanted to honor Lurie whose wish was simple: to see highlights of the Browns’ games he’d missed as a POW. Modell hosted a party and they watched football together in his film room.

His career back on track, Lurie commanded the 836th Air Division at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base from 1982 to 1984, where he was promoted to brigadier general. After 32 years, he retired in 1987.

“Alan’s mentoring had a lot to do with my success. He helped me land positions in the White House and serving the chairman of the Joint Chiefs,” said Jon Sams, a retired senior master sergeant who served with Lurie at Davis-Monthan. “We remained good friends for the rest of his life. I told him many times what an impact he had on my life and career.”

When SAHBA challenged regulations, Lurie’s outspoken views “often put him on the wrong side of bureaucracy and environmentalists,” said Herder, a member of President Reagan’s Commission on Housing. For homebuyers “in the battle of impact fees, he was their hero.”

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said Lurie “treated everyone with respect, strived to understand those with opposing points of view and always worked for what he believed to be the best interests of our community.”

He was “a calming influence” during the days of robust county growth that “ran into the pygmy owl in the late 1990s. Alan played a key role in helping find a path out of the chaos,” he added.

The solution was the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, and rather than fight it, “Alan and SAHBA worked with the county to create the best possible plan that served everyone’s interests. For that I will always be grateful,” Huckelberry said.

Over time, Lurie shifted from combatant to diplomat.

“Through all of the press conferences, Board of Supervisors meetings, and various other mind-numbing meetings, Alan showed his patience and stamina,” said John H. Shorbe, who, like Lurie was honored as a Father’s Day Council Tucson Father of the Year. “At the same time, his outstanding leadership shined through brightly and guided the way for our Association to maneuver around all of the potential political minefields, and towards an outcome that we felt was fair to all.”

To build better media relations, I set up several “backgrounders” to position SAHBA as a community citizen beyond growth issues. Though he resisted, our first lunch was with Jill Jorden Spitz, then the business editor at the Arizona Daily Star.

We met at the Old Pueblo Grille and sat outside. After introductions, the iced teas and moods were cold. The chill was broken when Jill’s shoulder was victimized by a pigeon flying overhead that relieved itself. The General quickly gathered linen napkins and instinctively snapped to attention beside her.

Amid the embarrassed laughter, she asked him to wipe her back. From there, the dialogue rolled and though they did not connect on every topic, some common ground was established.

“I knew Alan to be a strong leader with a great sense of purpose and resolve to accomplish the goals or missions he pursued,” said John Bremond, former president of KB Homes and another Father of the Year honoree. “His military record speaks for itself. He was a true American hero. He possessed that stern let’s-get-it-done attitude but also was kind and caring. He was someone you could always rely on. I believe those who knew him were blessed to have had him in their lives.”

“Alan and I would chat and compare stories of our military days,” said Shorbe, who also served in Vietnam. “One fact hit me hard as we chatted one day. I had come away from my year in Vietnam with a bit of bitterness in my heart after seeing what the Viet Cong were capable of, and some of these feelings are still strong today.

“Alan, however, spent seven long years as a prisoner of war and was tortured to levels that normal Americans cannot even imagine. And yet, when I asked him if he was bitter or held hatred in his heart, he replied, ‘No, no I do not hold any bitterness or hatred in me.’ It was in that instant that I knew the true level of strength within that man.”

Roger Yohem came to know Alan Lurie when they worked together at the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association from 2000 to 2009, where Yohem was VP of communications. 

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