A memorial service remembering the life and community contributions of longtime Yakima Valley businessman, rancher and outdoorsman Gary Lukehart is scheduled for Saturday at the family ranch near Naches.

Lukehart, 87, who among other achievements helped create the Yakima Valley SunDome and built the “Palm Springs of Washington” sign along Interstate 82, died Feb. 25, 2023, his wife Mary said.

She told the Yakima Herald-Republic that his memorial service was scheduled for Memorial Day weekend so out-of-town family and friends could attend.

The service is 1-4 p.m. Saturday, May 27, at the Lukeharts’ Running Springs Ranch in Naches.

“He’s done so much for the community – Yakima was his place,” Mary Lukehart said. “We moved over 50 years ago from San Jose, California, and I became a farm girl. We were never sorry that we bought the ranch.”

The Lukeharts, who were married in 1956, moved to Naches with their three children in 1969 and established the Running Springs Ranch. Its “big red barn” has hosted numerous weddings, special events and celebrations for decades, Mary Lukehart said.

Besides raising animals such as cattle, horses, goats and pigs on the ranch, Gary Lukehart was a businessman and investor driven by a strong work ethic, his wife said.

The RV business

One of Lukehart’s most successful business ventures was Chinook RVs, made for many years at a production facility in Union Gap.

At a 2019 West Chinook RV mini rally at Running Springs Ranch, Gary told the Yakima Herald-Republic how he began in the RV business.

Growing up in California, Gary and his father, Don Lukehart Sr., enjoyed the outdoors but were frustrated by a lack of recreational vehicles. This prompted father and son to convert a Chevrolet Corvair into a mini camper in 1961.

“Everybody looked at it and said, ‘Jeez, you’ve gotta build those things.’ I found myself in the business,” Lukehart told the Herald-Republic.

He started producing the campers, also known as “surfer vans,” in San Jose and Los Angeles. Some had creative paint names like Sublime Lime, Omaha Orange, Panther Pink and Plum Crazy.

His 1962 model slept their family of five, Gary told the Herald-Republic. He and Mary occupied the back, their son slept in the front seats and their twins occupied the cots overhead.

“We went from camper-type (RVs), then luxury vans, surfer vans. Then we started building bigger units with a van front and fiberglass body,” Gary Lukehart said.

Chinook RV is best known for its luxury vans and its RVs with a one-piece fiberglass motorhome body mounted on a van or truck, most of them Fords along with a few Chevys.

Lukehart designed the first version of a Chinook RV with a one-piece body in 1971, shortly after he and his family moved to Yakima from Southern California – when his company merged with Chinook Co. and Lukehart became president.

The company’s Union Gap production plant closed in 2006, and Lukehart sold the brand in 2013.

The SunDome and the sign

Lukehart became involved in economic development later in his career, building a prominent Yakima shopping center, other business sites and working with the Central Washington State Fair board to build the Yakima Valley SunDome.

The building has housed numerous community expos, graduations and sporting events since it opened in 1990.

Its construction was spurred several years earlier after state Sen. Alex Deccio obtained $6.5 million in state funding for the project and also sponsored legislation to allow Yakima to tax motel and hotel room rentals, providing a revenue source to finance construction costs of a new building at the fairgrounds.

Yakima and Union Gap matched the state funding for the new building, and Lukehart – as Central Washington State Fair Board president – urged that the structure be built as a dome.

“Square buildings don’t fire me up,” Lukehart said in a 2010 interview in the Yakima Herald-Republic. “I was interested in building something special.”

He chartered a plane to fly the building committee to Portland to look at the dome at Portland State University, the Herald-Republic reported. On the flight home, the plane flew over the domed structure on a sunny day, and Lukehart was struck with a name for Yakima’s building: the SunDome.

Lukehart also developed the Gateway Shopping Center, which houses Target and other businesses on Fair Avenue, just off I-82. As part of other developments in the area, Lukehart built the sign proclaiming Yakima as the “Palm Springs of Washington."

As the Herald-Republic reported in a 2017 “It Happened Here” history column, the billboard originally was built for Yakima’s centennial.

Lukehart said he always wanted to see a “Welcome to Yakima” sign on the freeway as people come into the area. So, when the city’s centennial rolled around in 1985, he and others erected the billboard on his freeway property to tout the anniversary. Along with “Welcome to Yakima,” it also bore the city’s centennial years.

More than a year later, Lukehart wanted to keep the “Welcome to Yakima” part but needed something to replace the reference to the centennial, the Herald-Republic reported.

He then remembered his time living in Los Angeles, and how Angelinos would decamp to Palm Springs to escape the winter fog along the coast. Like Yakima, Palm Springs has a sunnier, more arid climate than the coastal area.

To highlight the similar difference between Yakima and the “wet side” of Washington, Lukehart coined the phrase “the Palm Springs of Washington.”

“I didn’t go to a committee or try to sell it to a committee,” Lukehart said. “It was just the experience I had in my lifetime.”

When the reworked sign was initially unveiled in 1987, Lukehart said it sparked some conversation, but he said the phrase caught on with younger people and has become an unofficial moniker for the city.

Mary Lukehart’ said her husband enjoyed the sign’s lasting notoriety.

“He thought (the sign) would be fun way to promote the area … when he went ahead and did it, eventually everybody loved it,” Mary Lukehart told the Herald-Republic. “I used to get some weird phone calls at the ranch about it, when he first did it.”

According to Lukehart’s obituary, he, Mary and their children, Roz, Dan and Dain enjoyed family trips camping, boating, hunting and fishing.

Gary Lukehart also loved football, having played as a quarterback and running back when he attended Oregon State University in the 1950s. One of his teams went to the Rose Bowl in 1957, competing against the University of Iowa in Pasadena, Calif.

Lukehart earned a bachelor's degree in business from Oregon State, and with his wife donated to and participated in various community organizations in the Yakima Valley.

He was honored with the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce Ted Robertson Community Service Award in 2010.

Contact Joel Donofrio at jdonofrio@yakimaherald.com.

Business Reporter

Joel Donofrio is the business reporter for the Yakima Herald. He was born and raised in the Chicago area, but he and his wife, Cathy, fell in love with the beauty (and low humidity) of the West and moved here in 2009, eventually relocating to Yakima in September 2021. They have two young adult children, Anthony and Joanna, and a dog, Molly.  When he is not taking photos of construction sites, tracking down new and relocating businesses or catching up on agricultural trends, Joel enjoys playing guitar, singing, listening to music and playing and watching sports. 

(0) comments

Comments are now closed on this article.

Comments can only be made on article within the first 3 days of publication.