FORT WAYNE — Across the miles from South Carolina now comes the voice of Leo Luken, spinning a tale taller than a palmetto. He says he’s 95 years old, plus three months. Says he plays golf three times a week. Says he just shot a 92, the 1,000th time he’s shot his age or better.
“Took me 24 years to do it the first time,” he says. “First shot my age at 71.”
And now you feel a tug down there below your knee, as if – yes – your leg is being mightily pulled. Leo Luken sounds like no 95-year-old you’ve ever talked to, first of all. He is too chipper. His laugh is too big. His memory is too keen.
“I take it you’ve played golf all your life?” I ask him.
“No, I started when I was 45 years old, after I got through pitching softball,” he replies immediately.
And now doubt creeps in, and you start to wonder to just how far the truth really is being stretched here. The softball reference, first off: Leo Luken was indeed a softball pitcher, a good one, back when the Zollner Pistons were taking on the world and wrestling it to the ground. He came to Fort Wayne in 1940 from Covington, Ky., where he and Bernie Kampschmidt and Jim Ramage won a world title in 1939. Along the way, Luken one-hit Fred Zollner’s team 7-0, and Zollner decided right then and there he had to have him.
“He told his manager ‘Get that guy, I want him,’ ” Luken says, and that is exactly how it happened. “And I brought Bernie and Jim Ramage with me.”
And everything after that?
Well, that’s no tall tale at all. Luken pitched 15 years for the Pistons until they disbanded in 1954, once winning 53 games in a row. They won the world title in ’45 behind Luken and Diz Kirkendall. If you Google “Leo Luken” these days, you’ll find all of that – and also his birthdate: July 14, 1918.
So the man’s spinning no yarns at all, it turns out. He really is 95.
He played softball and took up golf at 45 and, later on, he and his wife taught dancing for 23 years, whirling through everything from waltzes to the samba in their basement three hours a night. It was a way to make ends meet when the kids were growing up.
“We did that all winter, charging three dollars an hour,” he says. “That wouldn’t be much today.”
And what about today, speaking of which?
Well, he plays golf, of course. He can’t play two days in a row now and walking any distance from the cart path is a chore, and the days when he could reach the par-4s are gone. It’s a driver, 3-wood, chip and a wedge, most days.
“I don’t hit it as far as I used to, but I get it up and down a few times,” he says. “Doesn’t really matter.”
No, what matters is he’s 95 and he still plays three times a week, and the memories – his first hole-in-one, he says, happened at Orchard Ridge with his son caddying – are still there. It’s something to cling to on these days that are tinged with sadness as he watches his sweetheart of 70 years fight a grim battle with Alzheimer’s.
“When I first shot my age, my wife and I were in Tennessee,” he says now, another memory surfacing.
And suddenly it occurs: It’s the “wife and I” part of that he cherishes most these days.
No tall tale there.