Jack Lupton appeared before the Hamilton County Commission in December 1985 to serve as a “cheerleader” for a public/private effort that would encourage riverfront development and other steps to make Chattanooga the best mid-sized city in America.
From Chattanooga's signature aquarium on the downtown waterfront to the exclusive Honors Course in Ooltewah, John T. "Jack" Lupton left his mark across his hometown over the past two decades.
The Lookout Mountain philanthropist who once headed Coca-Cola's biggest bottling empire died Sunday at age 83. But those who worked with Mr. Lupton said Monday the legacy of how he used his family's fortune will live on.
"I don't think there is any doubt that what we have called the renaissance of Chattanooga came about because Jack Lupton made a decision that he wanted to invest in changing this community, and he really did," said former Chattanooga City Council member Mai Bell Hurley, a longtime civic leader and fundraiser who worked on Lupton-backed projects such as Chattanooga Venture, Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise and the RiverCity Co. "Beyond the aquarium and other facilities he helped to get built, his biggest legacy may be how he changed the spirit of our city."
After selling his Coca-Cola bottling business for $1.2 billion in 1986, Mr. Lupton turned his attention to helping rebuild Chattanooga after the city's economic and population downturn in the early 1980s.
Spurred by ideas from a task force headed by his then-son-in-law Rick Montague, Mr. Lupton helped lead an effort to revitalize downtown and the waterfront. After meeting with then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., initial plans for a $5 million aquarium on the waterfront quickly grew into what became the world's largest freshwater aquarium.
"Jack Lupton had big ideas for Chattanooga and for Tennessee, and his remarkable generosity helped make those dreams come true," now-U.S. Sen. Alexander said Monday.
When critics objected to public funding for the $45 million project they derided as "Jack's fish tank," Mr. Lupton led the campaign to fund the aquarium entirely from private donations, including more than $20 million from his own family and the Lyndhurst Foundation started by his father.
"The aquarium was really the beginning of the re-creation of downtown," said former Chattanooga Times Chairwoman Ruth Holmberg, one of dozens of community and business leaders Mr. Lupton encouraged to invest in the Tennessee Aquarium.
Since opening in 1992, the aquarium has won accolades as one of the nation's best such facilities and drawn more than 1 million visitors to downtown Chattanooga every year. It has helped spawn nearly $1 billion in private and public investment in downtown Chattanooga and along the Tennessee River's banks here, including the Creative Discovery Museum, Coolidge and Renaissance parks, the Tennessee Riverwalk, a Visitors Center, the $300 million corporate campus for BlueCross BlueShield and more than $250 million in new hotels, condominiums, movie theaters and restaurants.
Mr. Lupton's Lyndhurst Foundation also helped pave the way for what became the Riverbend Festival by paying for a B.B. King outdoor concert as part of "Five Nights in Chattanooga." The downtown festival became an annual tradition and later moved to the riverfront as Riverbend.
Behind the scenes, the Lookout Mountain resident also used his influence to help support several black churches and projects and even led an effort to change the name of Ninth Street to honor Martin Luther King Jr.
Despite opposition from former Public Works Commissioner Paul Clark and Mr. Lupton's own cousin, Stone Fort Land Co. President T.A. Lupton Jr., Jack Lupton convinced the City Council to change the name of the downtown thoroughfare.
Napoleon "Donut" Williams, a retired Chattanooga police officer who knew Mr. Lupton from the days he worked as a waiter at the Fairyland Club atop Lookout Mountain, said Mr. Lupton "could make things happen."
The force of Mr. Lupton's personality and wealth also is evidenced at The Honors Course carved out of more than 400 acres of farmland in Ooltewah. The prestigious golf course has been recognized by Golf Digest magazine as the 35th best course in America -- and perhaps the best devoted to amateur golf.
In the clubhouse at The Honors Course, Mr. Lupton's leadership is displayed in an artwork titled, "The Committee." Nine men are pictured around a boardroom table, and on each body is the face of Jack Lupton.
The drawing leaves little doubt about who controls the golf course, although others have served as its chairman.
Bill Sudderth, a longtime friend and partner with Mr. Lupton in the Chattanooga Land Co., said Mr. Lupton "had a strong personality" and often was impatient for results.
"He wanted the best, and I think he established a quality standard for Chattanooga to live up to," Mr. Sudderth said.
But Mr. Sudderth and others noted that Mr. Lupton also was eager to involve others in community endeavors. His group backed the Moccasin Bend Task Force and Chattanooga Venture in the 1980s to help the community collectively decide on its priorities.
In 1995, Mr. Lupton appeared before the Hamilton County Commission and pledged to support what community leaders determined would benefit Chattanooga. He called his role that of a "cheerleader" and "a pump primer."
But as a donor, he wanted to pursue specific goals, not just fund projects and agencies.
Mrs. Holmberg said Mr. Lupton helped reshape the way local foundations spend their money.
"A lot of foundations in the past were reactive," she said. "People would come to them and ask for money. But now they are proactive to have a vision and to fund it."
Changing the formula
For all his drive and determination, Mr. Lupton acknowledged he made some mistakes in business. In his passion for golf, he unsuccessfully invested in trying to save the Arnold Palmer Golf Co. and its successor, ProGroup.
The Coca-Cola magnate, whose grandfather was one of the world's first Coke bottlers, also admitted he was wrong about changing the formula and taste of one of America's best-known brands.
Mr. Lupton was one of the few bottlers to hold a seat on the board of directors for the Coca-Cola Co., the Atlanta-based firm that makes the syrup sold to independent bottlers. The bottler's size and board seat got the attention of Coca-Cola management -- especially when a study found that consumers surveyed around Lupton's Phoenix plant said they preferred the taste of Pepsi.
At the urging of Mr. Lupton, Coca-Cola conducted a nationwide survey and changed the formula of Coca-Cola for one of the few times in its history in the 1980s. But the new Coke fizzled, and consumers demanded that the original -- then dubbed Coke Classic -- return.
"I've got to plead guilty," Mr. Lupton said in a 1999 interview about how the New Coke he pushed met with such consumer resistance. "If there was ever a fast and quick exit of getting out of Dodge, this was it."
But true to his Midas touch, the publicity over Coke changing its formula -- and bringing back the original Coke -- ended up boosting sales for the soft-drink giant.
"He was willing to take risks and, fortunately for Chattanooga, most of those have been winners," said Charles Arant, president of the Tennessee Aquarium.