Local leaders praise community-building skills of former Chamber leader Gary Toebben, who died at 74
photo by: Richard Gwin
Los Angeles is a long way away from eastern Nebraska, and miles may be one of the less meaningful measurements of that distance.
That thought crossed the mind of Lawrence resident Larry McElwain when he was in L.A. in 2018 for the retirement reception of Gary Toebben, a small-town eastern Nebraska native who years earlier had served as the president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. Toebben now was retiring as the leader of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce.
What struck McElwain was how similar the L.A. scene was to Lawrence’s: A large room full of people who Toebben had formed friendships, alliances and partnerships with.
“This guy from Nebraska really connected wherever he went,” said McElwain, who was a longtime friend of Toebben’s and later also would serve as president of the Lawrence Chamber.
Toebben, 74, died earlier this month after having been diagnosed with bone and bladder cancer two years ago. On Monday, following the release of his obituary, several Lawrence leaders praised Toebben’s tenure in the city.
“He had a talent for getting people together and getting them to pull in the same direction on projects,” said Lawrence attorney Dan Watkins, who worked on projects with Toebben ranging from a 1994 sales tax vote to Toebben’s longtime efforts to lobby for the South Lawrence Trafficway. “He loved 7 a.m. meetings. He would have everybody’s undivided attention. He would bring the coffee.”
Toebben served as president of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce from 1981 to 1999, years that included projects like the South Lawrence Trafficway, a big bond issue to fund a second high school in Lawrence, and a period of growth — especially in the 1990s — where the city was adding 300 to 400 new homes per year.
State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, was impressed during that period with Toebben’s efforts to grow the leadership ranks in the community. Toebben invited her to join the Chamber’s board of directors long before she became a state representative. At the time Ballard was a school board member and one of the few people of color serving in a leadership position in the community. But she wasn’t the type of traditional business person who normally populates chamber boards.
“When he invited me to be on the chamber board of directors, I was really surprised,” Ballard said. “I was trying to think what did I have to offer. He said he wanted diverse ideas on the board, and he wanted the community to see the chamber not just as business-oriented but also as a group to make the community better and to assist.”
In Los Angeles, where Toebben served as the chamber president from 2006 to 2018, leaders there highlighted his work on equity issues, including his leadership to help win a public vote on a quarter-cent sales tax to fund homeless prevention and assistance efforts in Los Angeles.
“Gary showed his unwavering commitment to lifting up the Los Angeles region with equity long before equitable economics became the status quo,” Maria S. Salinas, current president and CEO of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
McElwain said Toebben’s reluctance to “separate or categorize” people was one of his great strengths. Shirley Martin-Smith, a local business owner who worked on multiple initiatives with Toebben, said he looked for friends and allies everywhere, noting that one of his great friends in Lawrence also happened to be one of the most prominent union leaders, the late Dwayne Peaslee, in the community. A chamber leader and a union leader is not the most common type of friendship, but Martin-Smith said Toebben would look for partnerships and friendships wherever he could.
In turn, Ballard said that people would turn to Toebben for guidance and advice, even if the issue went far beyond the normal type of chamber of commerce matters.
“When you are in politics, there are certain things you can talk about and certain things you shy away from,” said Ballard, currently the city’s longest-serving state lawmaker. “I never shied away from topics with Gary. I would ask him what he thought because I knew what he told me was going to be of value to me and how to serve the community.”
Family members have scheduled a memorial service for Toebben at 11 a.m. on Sept. 8 at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vermont St.