Lou Kraft: 2011 Citizen of Year
Oil City native and well-known business owner Lou Kraft has been named the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce 2011 Citizen of the Year. Kraft will be presented with the award during the chamber’s annual dinner on Feb. 29 at Cross Creek Resort. (Photo by Jerry Sowden)Needing no prodding, Lou Kraft loves to share stories.
He is the consummate raconteur, skillfully telling tales laced with sharp wit and gentle humor.
The listener is invited in to the story by way of Lou’s quick smile and kind eyes.
Sometimes there is a life lesson to be learned in the story. Likely, there is a history plug about his native Oil City snuggled in the verbiage. Often, an anecdote is shared simply to recall the hilarity of a prank or practical joke.
Always the storyteller, the well-known Oil City business owner has become the story, courtesy of the Venango Area Chamber of Commerce that has tapped Kraft as its 2011 Citizen of the Year.
The award is given to an individual who consistently shows leadership through extensive and diverse participation in volunteerism and service to community. It will be presented at the chamber’s annual dinner Feb. 29 at Cross Creek Resort.
“When I called to tell him he had been chosen, he said he would have ‘to think about it’ first,” said Susan Williams, executive director of the chamber. “That’s so like him — he never will take credit for anything wonderful that he does — and he said there are so many other deserving people.”
Self-effacing to a fault, Kraft chuckled and said he agreed to accept it after reading some excerpts from letters written “by people I think very highly of” who nominated him for the annual award.
The comments speak to Kraft’s graciousness and style as well as his commitment to his community.
-“Lou’s quick wit, sense of dry humor and his vast knowledge of the history of individuals and businesses of this area is unbelievable and makes for a delightful time when you are with him.”
-“His good judgment, thoughtful consideration and selflessness have been valuable assets as he has served his community in so many ways.”
-“Lou is the type of person who you feel welcomed by and at ease around, regardless of whether you are an old friend or a new acquaintance.”
Considered a major behind-the-scenes player, in terms of expertise, time and money, Kraft declines to puff out a long list of community service projects in which he has played key roles and instead simply notes, “I don’t like to talk about that too much — all I do is try to help.”
But he believes in giving credit where credit is due.
A life-long member of Good Hope Lutheran Church, Kraft said, “I believe my faith in God has been of the utmost importance in my life for my good health and happiness.”
Still, those who nominated him for the award and anecdotal information offer some specific achievements.
Kraft has been an aggressive promoter of workforce excellence in the region and has strongly touted the need for skilled and educated employees. He has served 25 years on private-public boards that promote regional job training.
Of his service, Kraft simply says, “I’ve always been interested in the education of young people. That’s of much importance to me.”
Long a supporter of the Salvation Army, Kraft has been directly involved in construction projects, fundraising campaigns and more directed at building an emergency disaster garage, expansion of the Oil City Salvation Army facility and creation of a dental center.
Kraft is a history buff and that has prompted him to offer considerable support over the years to the Venango Museum in Oil City. He also serves on numerous other civic committees, something he says he “tries to stay off but I can’t say no.”
Aside from his personal offerings, Kraft has another legacy in town. His companies, Kraft Concrete Products Inc. and Louis Kraft Co. of Oil City, have paved, constructed, developed, designed and more all across the region. The work has ranged from the former Quaker State headquarters to the parking ramp, downtown Renaissance streetscapes, water and sewer line work, lot and street paving.
“My father started with a team of horses and a wagon and bought his first equipment in 1925,” Kraft said. “I just carried on the business.”
Kraft’s four grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Germany. He and his two sisters were born in Oil City.
“I always tell people I never could have had a finer mother and father, Louis W. and Marie F. Kraft, and sisters and sons,” Kraft said. “And growing up in Oil City was fantastic.”
Working summers at Oakwood Rose Gardens and later for his father, Kraft graduated in the Oil City High School in 1950 and stays in close touch with several of his classmates. He went to the University of Pittsburgh on a basketball scholarship and earned a bachelor of science degree in civil engineering. He joined his father’s company while starting a six-year enlistment in the Army Reserves.
He puts a huge value on education, as evidenced by his sons, Dr. Louis W. Kraft II, and Dr. Jack C. Kraft, both physicians in California. His family also includes three grandchildren.
Lots of memories
For Kraft, the allure of staying in his hometown is based, in part, on memories.
“Oil City has had good times and bad times and I really don’t know where it’s going right now. But, I’ve always been optimistic. …But the good times we had were really something,” he said.
As a grin crossed his creased face, Kraft tells the story of playing on the famed Y-Travelers basketball team at the Oil City YMCA as a young adult in the 1950s and 1960s.
“I almost had to quit the team because of work. It was not because of the games but the bars we stopped in after the games,” he said, laughing.
That story segued into practical jokes played on and by Kraft and his contemporaries. There was a very large cow figurine that transitioned from in front of Kozy’s Karousel restaurant on North Seneca Street to someone’s front yard on the South Side. An outhouse also found its way to a friend’s lawn.
“The stories — there are a lot of them. All good, good people,” said Kraft, wearing a look that suggests the story-telling is about to begin anew.