by Don Doxsie
In 1954, John Lujack was a national figure, one of the best known and most respected sports personalities in the United States.
He was only seven years removed from winning the Heisman Trophy as the star quarterback for Notre Dame’s 1947 national championship team. He had spent four successful years with the Chicago Bears in the National Football League before having his career ended by a shoulder injury, then spent two years as an assistant coach at his alma mater.
He still was in the public eye as a radio broadcaster but he was seeking a more traditional lifestyle and a means of income outside of football. He decided to move to Iowa and to go into business with his father-in-law, Frank Schierbrock.
It was the beginning of one of the largest car dealerships in the Midwest, a company that endures to this day.
Lujack, now 88, no longer is connected with Lujack’s Northpark Auto Plaza, but nearly six decades later it’s still a thriving enterprise and it still bears his name.
Lujack grew up in Connellsville, Pennsylvania, the second youngest of six children of a railroad boilermaker. He was clearly the best athlete in his little corner of the state, but he was surprised when he was offered a chance to attend Notre Dame, surprised when he was able to become the only Notre Dame athlete of the past century to letter in four sports (football, basketball, baseball and track) and even more surprised when he was able to make an impact early in his college football career.
As a sophomore, he was an integral part of the 1943 Fighting Irish team, backing up both quarterback Angelo Bertelli, the school’s first Heisman winner, and left halfback Creighton Miller while playing almost every down on defense. When Bertelli entered the Army six games into the season, Lujack became the starting QB.
He went into the Navy himself after the season, but came back to Notre Dame in 1946. He was third in the Heisman Trophy voting that year and as a senior in 1947, became the marquee figure on one of the great teams in college football history. Notre Dame not only didn’t lose a game that year, it never trailed on the scoreboard. A total of 42 players on the roster ended up playing pro football.
While playing a game at Iowa during those years, Lujack met a young lady from Davenport named Patricia Schierbrock and the couple was married in 1948 as he was beginning his pro football career.
Patricia’s father had been in the car business since 1918, when he opened a Ford dealership in Neola, Iowa, and he had operated a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership in Davenport for nearly 20 years. He knew his sense of the business and his son-in-law’s name recognition could be a lucrative combination.
The local Chevrolet franchise became available when George Margulies, owner of Blackhawk Chevrolet, was sent to prison for income tax evasion and Lujack-Schierbrock Chevrolet opened in July 1954. It originally leased a building on Brady Street in downtown Davenport before purchasing the McClelland building on east Third Street, an old millwork that had been gutted by fire.
Lujack and Schierbrock vowed to build the “finest and most up-to-date garage in the Middlewest” at the new site. A year later, they were on the move again, to a larger location at Fourth and LeClaire. In 1967, they moved out of downtown to north Harrison Street, where they opened a 90,000 square foot facility on a 40-acre tract.
Lujack continued to be involved in football through those years. He served as Chris Schenkel’s color commentator on New York Giants television broadcasts until 1962, when Ford became the primary sponsor of the telecasts. When the new sponsor discovered that Lujack was a Chevy dealer, he was replaced by Pat Summerall.
The dealership was occupying most of his time by then anyway. The Quad-City Times reported in 1974 that Lujack-Schierbrock Chevrolet sold 62,110 cars in its first 20 years in business, and it was still growing and expanding.
The company reflected the qualities that made Lujack one of the country’s elite athletes. It never rested on its laurels, always seeking to do something bigger and better. Impeccable customer service was at the forefront of everything it did.
“Every manager and employee should handle a customer as though the future of his business depends on each transaction,” Lujack said in 1974.
In the 1980s, as the Quad-Cities economy slumped, Lujack’s dealership kept churning forward.
In 1982, it expanded beyond just Chevrolet and began selling Peugeot, Saab, Honda and Mazda vehicles, becoming known as Lujack’s NorthPark Auto Plaza. In 1983, it offered Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki motorcycles. Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Nissan and Yugo were added to the product line in 1986, followed by Mitsubishi and Hyundai in 1989, Saturn and Lexus in 1991, Porsche and Audi in 1992, and Kia, Volkswagen and Subaru in 1998.
By 1999, one of every four cars purchased in the two-state Quad-Cities region was sold by Lujack’s. The Times reported in 2006 that the company had more than 400 employees and annual sales of more than $170 million.
Lujack had long since sold the business to his daughter Mary and his son-in-law, Pete Pohlmann, a former University of Iowa wrestler who first became involved with the dealership in 1972.
In 2007, the Pohlmanns sold the company to Gurley Leep, the largest dealership in Indiana.
Through the years, the business has become as well known for its benevolence as for prolific sales. John Lujack was involved in a wide variety of charities, both on a local and national level, and the Pohlmanns founded the highly successful Quad-Cities Student Hunger Drive, which continues to stock local food pantries. That philanthropic tradition has continued under the company’s new owners.
Lujack, now the oldest living Heisman Trophy winner, still lives part of the year in the Quad-Cities while spending the winter months in Indian Wells, California.
(Don Doxsie has been a sports columnist and sports editor for the Quad-City Times in Davenport since 1984. He has won numerous state and national awards, including a first place award for enterprise reporting from the Associated Press Sports Editors in 2000. His book, “Iron Man McGinnity,’’ was published in 2009 by McFarland Publishing of Jefferson, N.C. It can be purchased at mcfarlandpub.com)