Atlanta loses a great leader – Wilton Looney at 99

By Maria Saporta

In life, sometimes one is lucky enough to encounter people who have a special spark – exuding warmth with substance.

Wilton Looney was one of those special people.

Looney died early Friday morning. He may have just turned 99, but he still was too young to have left us.

An ultimate Southern gentleman, Looney was CEO of Genuine Parts from 1961 to 1990. But in truth he never really retired from the company – serving as a director emeritus until the day he died. No Genuine Parts annual meeting was really complete without an uplifting, closing comment from Looney.

Jimmy Williams Wilton Looney

Jimmy Williams and Wilton Looney at the Genuine Parts 2017 annual meeting (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Yet he missed this year’s annual meeting in April for health reasons. (Just a year earlier – at  the 2017 annual meeting, Looney actually had fallen at the new headquarters building at Genuine Parts, and he never fully recovered from that fall.)

This past April 18, Looney turned 99, so it really should not have been a surprise that he would die. It’s just there was something timeless about Looney. As the years kept adding on, Looney’s mind never slowed and his goodness never turned sour.

After I left this year’s annual meeting, I called Looney to tell him he was missed. He wanted to talk about John Williams, the apartment developer who had surprisingly died a few days earlier. “We lost a good one,” Looney said.

Little did I know we were about to lose another good one.

Although Looney was always part of Genuine Parts, he was so much more.

Looney was one of five men – the dean – who served on the board of powerful Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the largest foundation in the Southeast. He was a quiet force behind anything and everything that happened in Atlanta for five decades.

Russ Hardin, president of the Woodruff Foundation, texted me Friday, saying simply: “Our privilege to know him. He was rare.”

And there was Looney’s devotion to his late wife, Martha, who had been stricken with polio when they were young. Over the years, the Looneys gave more than $1 million to Rotary International and its efforts to eradicate polio from earth.

Wilton and Martha Looney

Wilton and Martha Looney in recent years (Special)

After his wife died in October, 2016, Looney made a gift of $1 million to build the Medical Specialties Floor of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Center for Advanced Pediatrics at North Druid Hills Road and Interstate 85. The building’s second floor will be named after Martha Looney.

Over the years, I treasured my encounters with Looney. He often would leave me a voicemail, complementing me on something I had written. And he was always willing to take my calls and answer whatever question was on my mind.

I remember calling him in 2014 when Genuine Parts was wondering if it would need to move from its headquarters because the Atlanta Braves was building its new stadium next door in Cobb County.

It had been Looney, when he was Genuine Parts’ CEO, who had moved the company’s headquarters in 1979 from Piedmont Avenue in downtown Atlanta to a new building at 2999 Circle 75 Parkway, then in a fairly undeveloped part of the region.

“We have been very happy there,” a sentimental Looney said when I called.  “It’s such a pretty place.”

For Looney, it was just one of life’s ebbs and flows. Genuine Parts ended up selling its building to the Braves and developing its new home a couple of miles to the east in the Wildwood development in 2016.

Wilton Looney James Shepherd

James Shepherd, co-founder of the Shepherd Center, greets philanthropist Wilton Looney at the Shepherd Center in 2012 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

That was the same year Looney lost his wife – another ebb and flow in his life.

Following her memorial service, there was a reception at the Piedmont Driving Club where he and I sat together – again me asking questions – wanting to know more about their 74-year marriage. He indulged me, sharing stories of his youth and how he fell in love with Martha

I’ll never forget the twinkle in his eye and the sweet smile he had that day – and so many days throughout his long life.

It makes me sad knowing we won’t see that twinkle and that smile again.

A memorial service will be held on Wednesday, June 6 at 11 a.m. at Northside Drive Baptist Church at 3100 Northside Drive. A reception will follow at the Piedmont Driving Club.

Here is the family-written obituary:

Wilton Denny Looney passed away on June 1, 2018.

Wilton was born to Wilton Bryte Looney and Lou Denny Looney on April 18, 1919. He spent his early years in the town of Vanna, Georgia (Hart County).  After finishing high school in 1936, Wilton knew he didn’t want to continue working on his parents’ one-mule farm, so he traveled to Elberton, Georgia and found a job at Western Auto Supply Company.  He worked for $10 per week, 6 days a week until he was recruited to work for Genuine Parts Company. Wilton then moved to Charlotte, North Carolina and began a lifelong career and passion with Genuine Parts Company.

It was during his time in Elberton that he met Martha West.  Martha’s patience allowed him to pursue his career while they dated long distance for four years before getting married.

Wilton Looney

Wilton Looney at an Atlanta Rotary meeting (Photo by Maria Saporta)

While Wilton was in North Carolina, he was “invited” by the United States Government to join the Army.  After a year of training, he spent three and a half years supervising vehicle maintenance for construction of the Burma Road during World War II, returning home as a Major on Martha and Wilton’s third wedding anniversary.

After World War II, Wilton resumed his career with Genuine Parts Company, spending a year in Atlanta before moving to New Orleans to head operations in the region.  While in Louisiana, Martha and Wilton were blessed with a daughter, Sylvia. Seven years after their arrival in New Orleans, Wilton moved Martha and Sylvia to New York and then Boston to continue his career with Genuine Parts Company, before returning to Atlanta in 1955 to assume the role of president.

Wilton was fortunate to work with his mentor, Carlyle Fraser, for the next six years until Mr. Fraser’s passing.  Wilton was subsequently elected Chairman and CEO of Genuine Parts Company and would serve in those positions for nearly 30 years, leading the company’s growth from $34 million to more than $3.4 billion in sales. He credits his success to the people around him, especially Earl Dolive and Bill Hatcher.  Wilton was honored for his achievements with Genuine Parts Company by the Automotive Hall of Fame with a “Distinguished Service” award in 1983 and then an induction to the Hall of Fame in 1992.

Throughout his career, Wilton emphasized the importance of learning from others and strove to take advantage of any opportunities that came his way.  He served on the Boards of Trustees or Directors at 10 organizations around Atlanta. This allowed him to work with some incredible people – John Sibley, O. Wayne Rollins, George Craft, George Woodruff, Don Keough, Sartain Lanier, Jimmy Williams and Lee Burge, to name a few. He claimed that he never left any board meeting without having some idea that he could apply to Genuine Parts Company.

When Wilton retired from Genuine Parts Company in 1990, he was pleased to hand leadership of the company to Larry Prince. But, he continued to maintain an office at company headquarters and attend every board meeting for the next 28 years, totaling almost 80 years with his beloved company.

Wilton’s four passions in life were his family, his career, his church, and his community.  He took his civic duty seriously and was active in the Atlanta Rotary Club, the Capital City Club – where he served as Club President – and also headed the United Way.  He was a trustee of the Woodruff Foundation and served on the boards of several schools including the Lovett School, Agnes Scott College, and was a founding board member of Pace Academy.

One of the most important things to Wilton was that, together with his dear friend, Dr. Linton H. Bishop, he founded the Carlyle Fraser Heart Center, located at Emory Midtown Hospital.

His survivors include his daughter and son-in-law, Sylvia and Bruce Dick, his granddaughters, Laura Dick Moses (Tom), Amy Dick Hurst (Matthew), and Allison Dick Blaisdell (Andrew) and five great-grandchildren, Calvin Ellis Dalke, Charlotte West Dalke, Taylor Courtney Moses, Henry Winn Hurst and West Eleanor Blaisdell.

The family would like to thank Menders Inc., Lillie Johnson, Margaret Nonyane, Marvalyn McIndoe, Alicia Honore, LaTanya Ballock, Angela Taylor, Stephanie Pettway, Monique Cower and Antonio Marquez for their constant care of both Wilton and his wife, Martha, who passed away in 2016.

In lieu of flowers, friends wishing to do so may make a memorial gift to The Carlyle Fraser Heart Center at Emory Midtown Hospital (550 Peachtree Street, Atlanta, Georgia, 30308),  Northside Drive Baptist Church (3100 Northside Drive, Atlanta, Georgia, 30305), or the charity of their choice.

A visitation will be held from 6:00 – 8:00 pm on Tuesday, June 5th at H.M. Patterson & Son (173 Allen Rd NE, Sandy Springs, GA 30328).  A memorial service will be held at 11:00 am on Wednesday, June 6th at Northside Drive Baptist Church (3100 Northside Drive, Atlanta, Georgia, 30305) and a reception will follow at 12:30 pm at the Piedmont Driving Club (1215 Piedmont Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30309).

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

1 reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

What are your thoughts?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.