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Thousands of YMCA campers across the country have Armin Luehrs to thank for helping champion and shape camps nationwide.

After establishing programs at northern Minnesota camps, Luehrs — better known as "Whitey" because of his white-blond hair — became a national consultant to Y camps.

"He was considered a legend in camping and camp programs," said his son Eric Luehrs of Crystal. "He believed in getting kids and families out of the city … to connect with nature and wilderness."

After a four-decade Y career, Luehrs was one of 150 people inducted into the YMCA National Hall of Fame in 2013. Luehrs, 95, of Eden Prairie, died Dec. 20.

"He's just a guy who stood for everything the Y stood for," said Bill Barringer of Greenville, S.C., who met Luehrs working at a Dallas Y in the 1980s. "He's a giant of a man."

Born and raised in Sheboygan, Wis., Luehrs first got involved with the YMCA in ninth grade as a member of Hi-Y, a service club, and worked as a staff member at YMCA Camp Manito-wish in Wisconsin. After graduating from George Williams College, he worked at YMCA Camp Abe Lincoln in Iowa and then at the St. Paul Y, where he took a job as director of Camp Widjiwagan in Ely. There, he helped the camp on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness focus more on the small-group wilderness trips the camp is still known for today.

"It was so much character-building, not just going away to camp to goof around," Eric Luehrs said.

Whitey Luehrs also established the neighboring Camp du Nord in 1961, going door-to-door to raise funds so the YMCA could buy it and start family camps — a concept some doubted could persuade Twin Cities families to drive five hours north. But the family camp spots now sell out in a lottery system and prompted the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities to buy a second family camp in 2018.

"That's really his crowning achievement," said Niki Geisler, who oversees the family camps. "Whitey changed the trajectory of their life because he made sure they'd have the camp experience."

At Widjiwagan, he also started women's programming and was among the first to elevate women into leadership roles. The job didn't just cement his love of the outdoors but changed his love life; he married the camp nurse, Virginia Lundeen. They had three children, living in Roseville and spending summers in Ely until 1964, when he transferred to the Minneapolis Y to oversee its camps. "He's really an icon that so many people have looked up to," said Linda Ramacier of St. Paul, who worked at Widjiwagan.

Luehrs moved to Dallas in 1970 to work as the regional head of camping before being tapped to work at the YMCA of the USA's Chicago office, consulting with hundreds of camps on everything from staffing to developing programs.

"He didn't preach values; he modeled them," said Linda Dean of Downers Grove, Ill., who met him while working for the Y in Chicago.

Mike Bussey of Woodbury, another friend and colleague, added: "Whitey represented the very best of our [YMCA] movement. He helped a lot of us find purpose in life."

Other friends and former colleagues described him as an unpretentious leader, captivating storyteller and avid outdoorsman who loved planting pine trees and once wore a bow tie carved out of wood to an event. After he retired in 1990, Luehrs and his wife returned to Minnesota and bought a cabin on a lake near Grand Rapids.

Besides Eric Luehrs, he's survived by son Mark Luehrs of Plano, Texas, and daughter Renee Henson of Annandale, Minn., brother Marvin Luehrs of Sarasota, Fla., and four grandchildren. Services are 11 a.m. Friday at Wooddale Church in Edina.

Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141