Martha Looney, 98, is dancing in heaven

By Maria Saporta

Martha Looney asked to be buried in red stiletto heels.

It may seem odd that someone who had suffered from the effects of polio since 1949 would want to be buried in shoes that she could not wear in life.

“I want to dance in heaven,” she told her only child – daughter Sylvia Looney Dick.

At the memorial service for Martha West Looney on Friday, Sylvia along with her daughters and grand-daughters, all wore red shoes to illustrate the bond they felt towards the family matriarch.

Wilton and Martha Looney

Wilton and Martha Looney in recent years (Special)

Even her son-in-law, Bruce Dick, wore red socks to mark the occasion.

But what stood out the most in her life was her 74-year marriage to Wilton Looney, best known in Atlanta as the CEO of Genuine Parts from 1961 to 1990. He continues to serve as a director emeritus of the Fortune 500 company, and he also is a trustee of the highly influential Robert W. Woodruff Foundation.

Following the service at Northside Drive Baptist Church, a reception was held at the Piedmont Driving Club – where Wilton Looney, 97, talked to me about his life with Martha, 98.

“I don’t remember being single,” Wilton said sounding a bit bewildered.

When Wilton graduated from high school in Royston, Ga. in 1936, he went to work at a small auto parts company in Elberton. He noticed from across the park a young attractive woman who walked from her job at a local granite company to the bank every day.

“I could see better then,” Wilton said. “She looked good to me.”

He found out who she was and asked Martha West for a date. From that point on, neither of them ever dated anyone else. They put off marriage for several years until they could afford it – eventually spending almost 80 years together.

“I didn’t have a car or money,” Wilton said. “ We made $20 a week. Each of us made $10 a week, which in 1937, wasn’t bad. He then got a job at Genuine Parts and was sent to Charlotte while she stayed in Elberton.

Martha and Wilton Looney

Martha and Wilton Looney at a Genuine Parts event (Special)

“I called once a week collect,” he said. The company then moved him to Monroe, N.C., where he stayed until 1941.

“That’s when the government invited me to join the Army, “ Wilton Looney said.

After his first year of service, Wilton married Martha in 1942. “And they promptly sent me to the jungles of Burma for three years. I grew up in the Army. I started as a Private, and I became a Major.”

When he returned to the States in 1946, he rejoined Genuine Parts, and after a year, he was sent to New Orleans. Because the operation there was so small, he didn’t have a secretary. So Martha would go to the office with him to help him out.

Sylvia was born, and then 18 months later Martha contracted polio. Her twin sister, Margaret, who also was living in New Orleans, helped care for Sylvia, her niece.

Few husbands are as devoted to their wives as Wilton was to Martha.

“It wasn’t hard to be devoted to her,” Wilton said. “She meant so much to me. I’m going to miss her.

Wilton and Martha Looney

Wilton and Martha Looney on their honeymoon in 1942. Wilton Looney always loved this photo because it showed her walking (Special)

About 18 years ago, Martha began suffering from post-Polio syndrome. “One day she went to the mailbox, and she couldn’t walk back to the house,” he said.

So the Looneys turned the focus of their philanthropy to eradicating polio around the world. They have given more than $1 million to Rotary International to help reduce the occurrence of the polio virus.

“She lived almost long enough to see the end of that,” Wilton said. “There are still three countries that have it – Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.”

Wilton Looney then described her passing on Oct. 5.

“When she died the other day, around her bed were all of her girls,” Wilton said, explaining there was Sylvia and her three daughters. “She was tired, and she was ready to go.”

In appreciation to her decades of service as the first lady of Genuine Parts, CEO Tom Gallagher told Looney the company held a moment of silence for Martha Looney and flew its flags at half-mast across the country on Thursday and Friday.

Wilton said he realized that he had been fortunate to have been married to his life partner for 74 years, but then he added in a gentle melancholy tone: “It wasn’t long enough.”

To read the family-placed obituary, please click here.   

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.

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