Duane Acklie, who built one of the nation’s largest privately owned trucking companies and was a behind-the-scenes force in Republican politics for two generations, died Saturday afternoon in Lincoln.
Acklie, 84, was chairman of Crete Carrier Corp. when he died of complications from a number of health problems, said his son-in-law Tonn Ostergard, the company’s chief executive.
His funeral will be at 10:30 a.m. Thursday at First-Plymouth Church in Lincoln.
An adviser to presidents, supporter of candidates at all levels and friend of truck drivers, Acklie brought a commitment to integrity to both politics and business, said Ostergard, who is married to Acklie’s daughter Holly.
“He was a true gentleman and someone who really wanted to make sure he did it the right way and with integrity,” Ostergard said. “The relationships he built in business were really a testament to that. He had the respect of his peers, all the people he did business with. He was highly regarded.”
A native of Madison County, Nebraska, Acklie earned bachelor’s and law degrees from the University of Nebraska — graduating from law school in 1955 — and later a doctorate in law from Nebraska Wesleyan University.
After college he served two years as an Army officer, stationed in Germany for 20 months, and seven years in the Army Reserve. He never forgot the experience.
“When you’re overseas, you really lose contact with a lot of people,” he said in a 2012 interview. “I had to do a lot of scrounging to find the job that I wanted.”
He got the chance to help other veterans adjust to civilian life. Crete Carrier, a nationwide concern with 5,000 trucks, 13,000 trailers and more than a dozen truck terminals from Pennsylvania to Arizona, became a veteran-friendly employer.
“We want to do everything we can to help that service person coming back, to make sure that they have an adequate job available to them,” Acklie said.
The company began in 1966 using six leased trailers to haul Alpo dog food from a plant in Crete, Nebraska. At the time, Acklie was an attorney practicing with the Nelson, Harding, Acklie & Tate law firm.
He helped company founder Ken Norton incorporate the trucking company and later represented Norton in a pending sale in 1971.
When the deal fell through, Acklie and his wife, Phyllis, decided they would buy the business. Over the next eight years the company opened a new headquarters in Lincoln and made six acquisitions.
“We spent $135,000 for approximately 5 acres of hard-surface parking around the terminal,” Acklie said, according to a company history. “It was almost unheard of to spend that much money for just a place to park trucks. Our whole family pitched in, and we received no salary in 1973.”
Besides expanding the trucking business, Acklie had longtime investments in banking, insurance, agriculture and other enterprises. He also served on several corporate boards, including Behlen Manufacturing, FirsTier Financial, Aliant Communications, Central Freight Lines and Hunt Transportation.
He was Crete Carrier’s CEO until 1991. Phyllis served as vice president, secretary and board member. They had been married for 62 years.
When the company reached its 50th anniversary in June, Acklie was there to enjoy a gala celebration at the Pinnacle Bank Arena.
As his business career grew, so did his political involvement, starting from joining the Young Republicans in college.
“He was identified early as a leader in the party, just through his hard work and tireless efforts on behalf of the party,” Ostergard said. “It earned him a lot of recognition and responsibilities that he enjoyed over the years.”
Acklie was a longtime national committeeman representing Nebraska and, for a time, was vice chairman of the Republican National Committee. He was an adviser to both Bush presidents but also helped local candidates and those seeking and holding statewide offices.
“He was a tireless worker for Republican politics on the local, state and national level,” Ostergard said. “There wasn’t anything he wasn’t willing to work hard for. To him, every candidate was important.”
Acklie was appointed chairman of the International USO, chairman of Sallie Mae and a senior adviser to the United Nations. He helped Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, become a private entity.
He had been chairman or board member of the American Trucking Association, the Lincoln and Nebraska Chambers of Commerce, the Nebraska State Highway Commission, the Nebraska Economic Development Commission, the American Transportation Research Institute, the University of Nebraska Foundation and the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
The Acklie Charitable Foundation is a founding benefactor of the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center at the Nebraska Medical Center.
His awards included the U.S. Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, the highest such recognition for a civilian. In 2010 presidential adviser Karl Rove was among those who came to Nebraska to honor Acklie at a GOP event.
Acklie may have thought about running for office, Ostergard said, but he had a business career.
“He was equally or even more effective behind the scenes,” Ostergard said. “Sometimes he was a person who could help get things done, and maybe he was more effective than someone in elected office.”
Getting along with people was part of his character in business, too, Ostergard said.
“He was an adviser to both Bushes as president, but Duane also had a common touch with our drivers. He had that unique ability to just connect and be genuine with people at all levels. He had a deep compassion and empathy for our drivers. Duane treated everybody the same, with dignity and respect.”
Acklie and his wife spent many winters at a vacation home in Naples, Florida. The two enjoyed traveling, and in earlier years enjoyed snow skiing and taking fishing trips with friends.
Shortly before his death, the company hung a portrait of Duane and Phyllis Acklie in its boardroom. The photo was taken for the 25th anniversary of the company and had hung in their home.
“I told him the other night ‘This is the picture everyone sees when they come into the boardroom,’ ” Ostergard said. “ ‘You’re our chairman now and you’ll always be our chairman.’ That made him smile, to think he would have that enduring presence in the organization.”
Acklie also is survived by daughter Dr. Laura Schumacher and her husband, Jeff; grandchildren Andrew and Grant Schumacher, Halley Kruse and Winston Ostergard; and great-grandchildren Avery and William Ostergard.
Visitation is on Wednesday from 2 to 7 p.m. at Roper & Sons Funeral Home, 4300 O St. Memorial donations can be sent to the Wyuka Historical Foundation.