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Published Thu, Apr 15, 2010 07:03 AM
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Ashes to ashes for a high-flier

Pete Luter, in a freefall wearing a wing suit, made thousands of jumps and often signed correspondence 'Birdman.'

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If there's one thing Pete Luter hated, it was rainy weekends. When the weather was bad, he couldn't put on his bird suit and jump out of airplanes.

The blue skies were clear over Zephyrhills, Fla., on March 19 - the way Luter liked it. But something went terribly wrong as he flew through the air that afternoon, and his parachute didn't open. Luter, 68, was dead when ground crews reached him.

He was doing what he loved, said his son, Paul C. Luter IV of Roanoke Rapids. "He didn't suffer. He would not have wanted to survive if it meant a lifetime of hospitals and nursing homes."


Luter's desire to soar blossomed early on.

"He took flying lessons before he could drive," said his sister, Anne Bromby of Raleigh. "He paid for them by helping lay the floor at the airport. Flying was in his DNA."

With the exception of a self-imposed hiatus while his children were young, Luter jumped every chance he got. He was the 763rd person to receive a "D" license, the highest rating issued by the U.S. Parachute Association, which has about 32,000 members. The official record says he made about 3,600 jumps. Unofficially, though, Paul Luter said the number was closer to 5,000.

He was always going up, his son said. "If someone wanted ashes spread, he'd do it." Each Fourth of July, Luter sailed into Halifax's celebration carrying an American flag.

Luter was one of the jumpers at the Wright Brothers' First Flight Centennial in 2003.

"He was a patriot," Bromby said. "He loved this country."

On the ground, Luter's interests were just as heady. Every December, he would dress up like a clown and parade through Roanoke Rapids on his 18th-century Penny Farthing bicycle.

"He would throw candy to the children," his wife, Emily Luter, said. "He didn't want anybody to know who he was, but they all did."

Luter was also an amateur magician and spent countless hours mentoring Boy Scouts in the High Adventure Explorer Post.

Chimney expert

In Roanoke Rapids, Luter was a prominent businessman, operating several businesses with his wife. But he stumbled upon the career for which he was best known after he began selling wood stoves.

"Wood stoves led to dirty chimneys, and Pete realized no one was cleaning them," Emily Luter said. "So he became one of the first chimney sweeps in North Carolina."

The year was 1979. Luter was instrumental in establishing the N.C. Chimney Sweep Association, where sweeps would get together and learn as much as they could from one another. Eventually, the group partnered with the National Chimney Sweep Guild in Indianapolis. Luter served as president of each.

When Luter became concerned about a lack of uniform training for sweeps, he started the National Chimney Sweep Training School. For two weeks every summer, professionals go to Indianapolis to learn the tricks of the trade and the latest safety regulations. Luter was always looking to improve the profession.

"He invented tools for chimney sweeps," his wife said. "We traveled to every state in the country showing them at trade shows. I never knew where we would be next week."

Luter was a star among chimney sweeps, and his expertise landed him on an episode of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." It also made him a natural choice when Washington came calling in the 1990s.

"The national guild was asked to select a team of sweeps to clean the White House chimneys, and Pete was one of those chosen," Emily Luter said. "He was real proud of that."

Chimneys are cleaned from the bottom as well as from above, so the job took him into all rooms of the White House, including the private residence of the first family and the Oval Office. Not surprisingly, he was most impressed by his climb to the top of the White House. "The view of Washington from the tops of the chimneys is awesome," Luter later wrote on a Web site.

Overseas star

Luter's love of travel often took him overseas. His wife, a self-described homebody, told him, "You go ahead. I'll stay here." Luter's sister said it was that relationship that fueled her brother's spirit.

"Our family's lucky day was when Pete met and fell in love with Emily," Bromby said. "She kept him grounded."

One year, Luter learned of a chimney sweep festival in a small village in Italy. Not long after Luter got there, the whispers spread among the villagers about the American in their midst. Luter became an instant celebrity and was quickly placed at the head of the parade, grand-marshal style.

"He was the toast of the day," Bromby said. "He went back every year after that." Bromby still marvels at her brother's enthusiasm when faced with an adventure.

"My brother lived the way we all wish we had the courage to do," she said

On April 25, Luter's family and friends will celebrate his life on what would have been his 69th birthday. Sometime during the day, a plane will fly over North Carolina, and the ashes of the man whose signature read "Blue Skies and Dirty Flues" will be scattered in the wind.

Luter is survived by his wife, Emily; son Kenneth Luter and his wife, Debbie; son Paul Luter and his wife, Jamie, all of Roanoke Rapids; and sister Anne Bromby and her husband, Craig, of Raleigh.

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