By Jodi Auvin
In August 2017, 81-year-old Larry Laukka (B.A.’58) pedaled for miles alongside more than a thousand cyclists in Dakota County, Minnesota, to raise money for research at the University of Minnesota’s Masonic Cancer Center. And while many might marvel at an octogenarian even considering such an undertaking, to those who know Laukka’s devotion to the U, it came as no surprise. Especially since the idea for the event was his.
The seed was planted a few years prior when Laukka, a prolific Twin Cities real estate developer, learned about an annual cycling fundraiser that was raising millions for cancer research at Ohio State University. Intrigued, he went to Ohio to see the 2015 ride.
“It was unreal,” he says, referring to the 7,000 cyclists at the event. He approached the University of Minnesota Foundation about adapting the concept, with every rider-raised dollar going toward research. Two years later, Chainbreaker was born and Laukka was the first to sign up. Despite being diagnosed with Stage III esophageal cancer just days before the ride, Laukka completed the 25-mile course as the race’s oldest rider, describing it as “fun and not too taxing.
“My motivation isn’t personal,” he says. “It’s to support an important cause. By 2021, I trust we’ll hit our goal of $100 million.”
If history is any indication, that objective will be achieved. Laukka has been a driving force behind buildings, monuments, and initiatives that will serve the U and the people of Minnesota for generations to come. Chief among them is the 231,000-square-foot “front door” to the U at the corner of Oak and Washington: the McNamara Alumni Center.
Laying the groundwork
One of two children, Laukka grew up in South Minneapolis. His father was a Minneapolis Gas Light Company repairman; his mother trained cashiers and bookkeepers for Red Owl grocery stores. Neither attended college, but both encouraged higher education. So did Laukka’s high school sweetheart, whom he married in 1961. “Mary wouldn’t marry a man without a college degree,” says Laukka, a 1953 Roosevelt High School graduate. “That sealed the deal.” To help pay for tuition, he worked for an independent grocery store throughout high school and college.
He entered the U in 1954 and joined Theta Chi, where he met Fred Friswold (B.S. ’58). “Larry was immediately recognized as a leader and appointed the fraternity’s rushing chairman,” recalls Friswold, retired CEO of the former Dain Bosworth. “He more than doubled membership during his term. He was also actively involved in campus politics and governance.”
Equally driven as a student, Laukka credits a course that combined geography, architecture, and sociology by legendary professor John Borchert with greatly influencing his career. “He made such an impression, explaining how cities had developed since the beginning of time.”
After graduating with a degree in economics, Laukka served in the U.S. Army, then worked for a mutual fund company. Just prior to taking a job at the company’s Kansas City headquarters, a fraternity brother introduced him to Clyde Pemble, who was starting a residential development company. Laukka, 26, scratched Kansas City and joined Pemtom Inc. as its only salesman.
“During the next 10 years, I earned a Ph.D. in the business,” he says. This included cultivating the tenacity that enables him to deal with whatever Murphy’s Law dishes out—design problems, zoning issues, construction delays, and more. In 1972, he left Pemtom to form Laukka Development Company, then spent the next 45 years building and developing more than 6,000 homes and homesites in the Twin Cities. He also lent his expertise to an array of civic associations, including founding the Minnesota Housing Institute and helping develop the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.
Since its inception in 1904 and despite repeated efforts to find a permanent home on campus, the University of Minnesota Alumni Association had moved repeatedly over the years. In the late ‘80s, it was forced to move again. At the same time, Ken Keller’s U presidency was unraveling due a controversial $1.5 million renovation of Eastcliff, the official residence. “The U was on the front pages every day,” says Friswold, who served as Alumni Association president from 1987 to ‘88.
After writing to Friswold expressing his concerns, Laukka suddenly found himself on the Alumni Association board, where his industry expertise made him the point person on the development of a freestanding alumni center. It soon became apparent to him that there was an opportunity to build a facility that could house a number of U-affiliated organizations, including the Board of Regents.
It took more than 10 years of “wading through various U bureaucracies” to turn that idea into bricks and mortar. Laukka and Friswold worked together and, with the help of Dale Olseth (B.B.A. ’52), raised the $46 million required to build the McNamara Alumni Center. “To succeed in real estate development, you need perseverance,” says Friswold. “That’s Larry’s style and he carried it through all his work on campus.”
During the 1997 groundbreaking ceremony, U President Nils Hasselmo presented Laukka with the “biggest, ugliest bulldog I’ve ever seen”—a tribute to Laukka’s dogged determination to get the project done. “It belonged to the College of Veterinary Medicine and was returned after the ceremony,” says Laukka. “Thank goodness!”
Since opening in 2000, McNamara has been home to the Alumni Association and the Foundation, provided office space for 25 U departments, and served as a venue for events that generate enough income to pay for the building’s upkeep. Those events also funded Scholars Walk—another project that had languished until Laukka commandeered it—a pedestrian walkway on the East Bank that lauds the accomplishments of U alumni.
“All of that got me more involved,” says Laukka. He was invited to join the Foundation’s board and lead a team of consultants to determine the best use for the University of Minnesota Outreach, Research, and Education Park—known as UMore—in Rosemount. Originally 12,000 acres of farmland, the government used the site for a munitions factory during World War II, then gave 8,000 acres to the U, which used it for agricultural research. Laukka urged the U to investigate the site for gravel, leading to the discovery of more than 400 million tons of it. He helped negotiate a 40-year contract with a company that pays the U a royalty for every ton extracted from a 1,700-acre portion of the site. At the end of the lease, that acreage will be returned to the U, including a lake formed by the extraction.
Laukka’s drive and dedication to the U have spurred other alumni forward, including Tom LaSalle (B.A.’72), owner of a project management company. At Laukka’s urging, the two worked together on the Alumni Center. “I did it for Larry,” says LaSalle. “That’s when I started to appreciate how important the U is to Minnesota.” LaSalle served as president of the Alumni Association board from 2007 to ‘08.
Today, Laukka sees the Alumni Center as one of the most rewarding undertakings of his career. And he sums up his decades of efforts in his characteristic minimalist style. “I did it out of my personal feelings for the U,” he says. “Fred asked me to lend a hand and one thing led to another. Now it’s Chainbreaker. I’m training for the 50-mile course.”
Friswold has a loftier summation. “Larry’s years of service are unique. There’s no one to replace him. He’s committed to building excellence at the U.”
Jodi Auvin is a freelance copywriter in Minneapolis who develops marketing communications for a wide variety of clients.
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Main Photo by Tom Sweeney, 1986, StarTribune