“So, there must be something good happening in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Obviously, we’re doing something right.”
Craig Lukatch spent the majority of his formative years in Hazleton. It was a good mix between being a city kid and a play-in-the-woods kind of kid. Summers at his grandparent’s place helped. He and his sister wore down countless bike tires racing from playground to park to the church lot next door. Marathon sessions of kickball and baseball ensued and seemed to last forever, at least until those church bells sounded at 6 o’clock.
That very same church played a major role in shaping young Craig. He was drawn to the music. The piano was his first love – then the pipe organ (Ok, so not the rockstar/first guitar story, but impressive nonetheless, probably more so, even). He carried this love for music well into college at The University of Scranton, where he studied to become a priest. The solitude, however, didn’t suit him. He course-corrected last minute and ended up with a few degrees in Philosophy, Theology and Spanish.
He found himself a natural fit in the nonprofit world. Stints at Catholic Social Services and the Pittston YMCA eventually led him to the Lacawac Sanctuary Foundation, where he’s served as President for roughly the last 10 years. And among the million and one things he does at the popular Wayne County sanctuary, witnessing kids and even many grown-ups fall in love with nature is by far the most rewarding.
We caught up with Craig in his cozy, cabin-in-the-woods/office nestled in the forested southwest corner of Lake Wallenpaupack. Thankfully, we were able to suppress our raging envy and ask a few questions – Why NEPA? chief among them.
How long have you lived in NEPA?
Altogether… 41 years.
What do you love about your town?
What I love about Northeastern Pennsylvania is just the different types of communities that exist in our area. We have cities like Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, Hazleton and great small towns everywhere. And we have so many things to do. There’s a lot of great restaurants. There’s so much outdoors stuff and hiking trails. There is a lot. And I think that’s what I appreciate the most about it. I also appreciate when you go away, even if it’s for a short time, and you come back home, you forget just how beautiful it is here – with the mountains and the hills and the trees. So, that’s what I like most about Northeastern Pennsylvania.
What I like about living here in Southern Wayne County is that it’s a little more remote. You know, it’s like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Although you have to drive 20 to 30 minutes to do anything, it’s still kind of great. I love looking up at the sky and being able to see all the stars. You don’t really get that in Downtown Scranton.
What’s your favorite NEPA restaurant?
Ok. I actually have a top two. Pazzo 315 in Pittston. And the 16th Ward in Scranton. If I have to pick based on really, really good food, then I’ll go with Pazzo. But if it’s all about atmosphere, good beer and whiskey, I’m going with 16th Ward.
What’s your favorite thing to do in NEPA?
I love to hike. So, for me, it’s all about exploring the different hiking trails in the area. And I’m not even close to having seen them all, but I like to check out the state parks and different nature preserves. I love the Eales Preserve up on Moosic Mountain. It’s gorgeous and its pretty big. They’ve got a couple thousand acres. I also like just about any park or trail that has waterfalls. Ricketts Glen, of course, is my favorite. The cool thing is that, no matter when you go to Ricketts, you can always kind of go a different way or take a new trail and see the park and the waterfalls a little differently. And it’s always a challenging hike, too, which is great.
I also really enjoy getting out with friends to explore all of the little towns we have here. Until I moved here to Lacawac, I didn’t realize how many fun, little towns we had like Honesdale or Hawley. And, of course, we have towns like Jim Thorpe where there are so many cool things to do and see. Like you can just spend a whole day there walking around. It’s great that we have basically these day trips where you don’t have to go too far to find a lot of really cool towns with things to do and restaurants.
What’s next for you?
Professionally, I see myself staying right here at Lacawac for the foreseeable future. We have so many great projects going on and I want to make sure I see them through. On top of that though, one of my new goals is to get back to traveling. My mom would always tell me, “Travel when you’re young.” And I used to laugh at her when she’d say it. But I did used to travel a lot. I went to Africa, Spain and Italy. And now, with my career and being so busy all the time, I lost sight of that. I think it’ll be important for me, moving forward, to make some time to start traveling again. While I can (laughs).
Another thing that’s important to me is that I also want to continue to give back. For a while, I was on a bunch of nonprofit boards and I really enjoyed that. I like to help small nonprofits with my specific expertise wherever and whenever I can. Right now, I have to pick and choose who I can devote my limited time to. Like right now, I’m on the NEPA Rainbow Alliance board and I really enjoy it. It’s all about balance at this point.
Where do you see NEPA heading in the future?
I think when I was growing up, people tended to have a very different outlook on NEPA. And so much has happened since then and is still happening to this day that I think it’s really changed many of those old perceptions. Now with the revitalization of so many towns and business districts and new restaurants and things to do always popping up, there’s this hope that we’re on the right track, you know? I certainly see more people coming in to Northeastern Pennsylvania, especially up here in Wayne County. Like ten years ago, when I first started here, a lot of the people out here didn’t live here permanently. And now they have their homes here. A lot of people retire here. So, there must be something good happening in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Obviously, we’re doing something right.
Look at the revitalization in Pittston and Downtown Scranton. Look at all the different events going on in places like Wilkes-Barre. I’m on the board at the Rainbow Alliance and we’re in our second year of doing the Pride events on Public Square. For about 16 or 17 years, the Rainbow Alliance always did a PrideFest in the Wyoming Valley, and it’s always been in places like Kirby Park. And last year, we took the chance at doing it in a very public space – on Public Square in Downtown Wilkes-Barre. And we added in a parade, too. And this will be our second year of having a whole PrideFest weekend including the parade at the end of June. And we’ve been told by city officials that last year’s event drew the largest crowd for any event held on the square in recent memory. I think that says a lot about our area and how far we’ve come.
I always say, why not? Why not do it here? It’s a special place for me. Not only is my family here, but it’s home. It always feels like home. For me, it’s about that whole connection back to your roots. I’ve lived in Washington D.C. and I saw what living a big city metropolitan life is like, but when you come home, it’s kind of like, “yeah, this is what home feels like.” You’re just another face and a name in a big city. Here, people know you. They remember you. We’re still small town in that regard, but we’re big enough that we have a lot to explore. I hear this all the time from people that visit from outside the area or who are traveling from other states. They just can’t get over how beautiful it is here. And they always tell me that they never knew there was so much to do here.