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Gordon Luce, 80; San Diego S&L; Chief Served in Reagan’s California Cabinet

Times Staff Writer

Gordon Luce, a former San Diego savings and loan executive who played a key role in city politics and development, and who served in Ronald Reagan’s Cabinet when he was California governor, died Monday at his home in Point Loma from complications of Parkinson’s disease. He was 80.

Luce, who headed Great American Bank for 21 years, and served as president of the California League of Savings Institutions, was once considered one of the most powerful men in the savings and loan industry. That reputation was aided by his long-standing relationship with Reagan.

“In addition to being a Cabinet officer, he was a dear and trusted friend,” Nancy Reagan said in a statement.

Born in San Diego in 1925, Luce belonged to a prominent family whose roots extended back to the city’s birth.

His grandfather, Moses Luce, was an early settler and a signatory on San Diego’s City Charter. In 1885, Moses wrote the charter for the city’s first savings and loan.

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Luce’s father, Edgar, served as a Superior Court judge and was a state senator.

“I came from a family of people that were active and encouraged me to be active,” Luce told The Times in a 1984 interview. “Walking down the street I always lagged behind my father, who had long legs like I do. He’d say, ‘C’mon, move faster.’ So anyhow, I’ve been trying to catch up to him for many years since.”

After high school Luce served in the Army and fought in World War II. He was awarded a Bronze Star.

Luce received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1950 and a master’s in business from the same school two years later.

After working at Carnation Corp., he joined HomeFed Bank of San Diego in 1955, the start of a long career in the saving and loan industry. But Luce always maintained a hand in politics.

He met Reagan while working on Republican candidate Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign in 1964. During Reagan’s run for governor in 1966, Luce served as his San Diego County campaign chairman. He was later named to the Cabinet.

“If you complain about things in state government ... your candidate wins, and he says, ‘Come and help us,’ you’d better be ready to go,” Luce said in 1967.

As Reagan’s secretary of Business and Transportation, Luce oversaw a number of agencies, including savings and loan, real estate, insurance and the Franchise Tax Board.

“He and Ronald Reagan hit it off,” said Jim Schmidt, a longtime friend who served as assistant secretary under Luce. “They had such great chemistry.”

In 1974, Luce served as chairman of the state Republican Party. Over the years he was a delegate to seven Republican national conventions, Schmidt said.

After three years in Sacramento, Luce returned to San Diego and headed a tiny thrift known as San Diego Federal Savings, which would later be known as Great American Bank.

During a 21-year career with the institution, Luce built it from a small enterprise into the nation’s eighth-largest S&L.; He played an important role in the introduction of industrywide innovations, such as automated bill paying and telephone transfers.

The fortunes of the bank took a turn for the worse in 1986, the year it purchased an Arizona institution. By 1990, Luce had retired and Great American Bank joined a long list of faltering S&Ls;, suffering huge losses. Ultimately, the bank’s California branches were purchased by Wells Fargo.

Luce continued his family’s long history of civic involvement, with efforts that included downtown redevelopment, adopt-a-school programs and local arts groups.

“That was one of Gordon’s passions, to do things to help the community,” said Schmidt, who served as president of Great American Bank under Luce.

Luce is survived by his wife, Karon; a daughter, Kelly Forsberg of Greenwich, Conn.; two sons, Randy Luce of Newport Beach and Andrew Luce of San Diego; and a sister, Sylvia Heitzmann of San Diego.


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