Around the Island

Island Profile: Rising to the top of Brooklyn Union Gas

CAROL GALLIGAN PHOTO | Gene and Betty Luntey amid their extensive collection of dahlias.

How many people do you know who got a fishing trip on the Snake River in Idaho as a 90th birthday present? Probably only one and that would be Gene Luntey, who loved every minute of it. Even so, he was eager to get back to Shelter Island to tend his hundreds of dahlias.

In one of his several fenced-in sections, he has hundreds of dahlias, many almost five feet tall. He, as a northern gardener must, digs them up every fall, stores them carefully and replants them in the spring.

But to begin at the beginning, Eugene Luntey was born and grew up in Buhl, Idaho, population of 2,500, and delivered newspapers and worked in the only drug store in town during high school. He graduated from the University of Idaho with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 1943 and received a scholarship to the Institute of Gas Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

But it was World War II and the government had other plans for him. He joined the Navy, and for the next two and a half years, worked for the Office of Scientific Research and Development, on rockets to be fired from naval aircraft.

After the war, he returned to IIT in Chicago and in 1947 married his first wife, Beverly, from Spokane, Washington, who was doing graduate work in journalism at Northwestern University. They were married in the little chapel there. Gene accepted a position as a junior engineer at the Brooklyn Union Gas Company in New York City, where he was to work for the next 39 years.

When Beverly and Gene arrived in the city, with everything they owned in suitcases and only $500 in the bank, there was 20 inches of snow on the ground and they had no place to live. They not only were suffering a severe case of culture shock but they also never dreamed that Gene would soon start work at the huge company he would one day command as president and chairman for 11 years before his mandatory retirement.

About those earlier times, “They were good years,” Gene remembered. He was fully involved with his work at the company, supervising, installing and maintaining the gas mains for the entire borough of Brooklyn.

When natural gas came to New York City in the early 1950s, he helped to plan, design and install the facilities required to store and deliver this new fuel; a conversion was required for the “natural gas” to replace the “manufactured gas” that had been in use for the prior hundred years. Beverly found a position as a personal secretary and assistant to Mrs. William (Babe) Paley, whose husband was chairman of CBS. In addition, she wrote a weekly column for a Spokane newspaper, chronicling daily life in the big city.

After the birth of their son, Kirk, in 1956, (now with IBM), the couple bought several acres in Sands Point on the northern shore of Nassau County and built their home there. He became the deputy mayor and chief police commissioner of Sands Point for more than 25 years, declining to run for mayor — he was traveling too often, he felt, to be able to serve effectively. Beverly died in 2000.

He became increasingly active in the natural gas industry in the United States, eventually becoming chairman of the New York Gas Group as well as a member of the New York State Energy Development Authority. He made many trips abroad to discuss mutual problems. “The Japanese were developing certain procedures for natural gas installations and equipment,” he said, “and we were working on some things here so we would exchange engineers. They’d come here for six months and we’d send people there for six months. They had a platform they had built to simulate earthquakes and they would build gas mains on that platform and then shake the platform to see what would happen to the gas mains. We had nothing like that in this country.”

In 1983, Gene joined the Board of Trustees of Long Island University, then the fifth largest private university in the country with more than 30,000 students. He initially became the first chancellor of the Brooklyn campus, an honorary position, and then went on to serve for five years as chairman of the board of the entire university. When he retired from Brooklyn Union in 1986, his work at the university was “a welcome responsibility” and he maintained his position there until 1998.

In 2001, a year after his wife’s death, Gene married Betty Brodie of Moss Creek Plantation in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Betty’s husband Steve had died 13 years earlier. The two couples had been fast friends for more than 45 years. “His first wife was my best friend,” Betty said. “He was my children’s godfather.” With this marriage, Gene acquired four more children, 10 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. “He always should have been a grandfather,” Betty said. “He’s very good at it.”

He also acquired an inhouse watercolorist, happy to chronicle the fruit of his amazing collection of garden flowers. Betty started painting “very early,” she said. “My mother was an artist and I was a sickly child and so she spent all that time with me. She had gone to Pratt and was a fashion editor and my father had been with the company that made Crayola.”

They both spoke of how lucky they felt and Gene’s conviction that he could not have had a better career or personal life. “Not everyone is lucky enough to be married to two very remarkable women. These years with Betty are true bonus years for both of us.”

Happy birthday, Gene!