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Luby's tries to cope with CEO's death

For executives of Luby's Cafeterias Inc., the first sign that anything was amiss came on Thursday, when their new chief executive failed to make an early morning Southwest Airlines flight to a board meeting in Phoenix.

Calling company headquarters from a stopover in El Paso, Texas, they got the news: John Edward Curtis Jr., who had worked his way up the company ladder for 18 years before reaching the top in January, had been found dead in a motel room in San Antonio early that morning.

The San Antonio police have ruled his death a suicide. "We don't suspect there was any foul play," said Jim Caruso, an officer of the San Antonio Police Department.

Barring some unexpected disclosure, investigators, his family and others close to Curtis are convinced that the 49-year-old executive _ a father of three who, as was his habit, prayed with his wife of 27 years before going to bed on Wednesday night _ was simply overcome by the day-to-day pressures of running a company.

Rather than attend his first board meeting as chief executive, Curtis took a room at a Motel 6 not far from his home and killed himself with a kitchen knife.

"This was something way out of character," said his son, Daniel Curtis, a Dallas businessman. "It was unexpected to all."

His mentor, Ralph Erben, Luby's chairman, who groomed Curtis for years to replace him as chief executive, agreed with the family's assessment and wept as he talked about Curtis' death. "There was, to my understanding, no apparent trigger," Erben said.

Except, perhaps, the pressure to perform. Erben said he had noticed that the taciturn Curtis, the company's accountant before he joined Luby's staff in 1979, was anxious about the approaching board meeting. But Erben said he had advised his protege early last week not to worry. "If you've got a problem, just tell them, "I inherited it,' " Erben said he counseled. "Blame everything wrong on me."

Caruso said the police had determined that Curtis was worried that Luby's would fall short of its expansion goals _ and about the effect that slowing growth would have on the company's 11,000 workers. The company has grown slowly but steadily for many years and now operates 226 restaurants in 12 states, including Florida.

Curtis' death, of course, has set off a search for serious problems at the company or in other dimensions of his life that might have caused him to be despondent.

The company _ which suffered a murderous attack in 1991 when a gunman sprayed its Killeen, Texas, restaurant with bullets, killing 23 people before killing himself _ is once again struggling to console its workers. The police are satisfied that the death of its chief executive was a suicide.

According to police records and interviews with detectives and medical examiners, Curtis slipped out of the house in San Antonio's leafy northern suburbs without disturbing his family and drove to a Motel 6 on Interstate 10.

He checked in between 10 p.m. and 10:30 p.m., and then apparently returned home, leaving a note for his wife, Kathi, telling her he planned to kill himself in Room 214 of the motel.

When Mrs. Curtis woke up on Thursday morning and found the note, she called the police. When a motel manager unlocked the door, officers found the scene soaked in blood, with Curtis lying face down on the floor. Next to his left hand was a large kitchen knife. His throat had been deeply cut.

In the days before he died, Curtis expressed disappointment that during his first quarter as chief executive the company's earnings would come in below those of a year ago, Erben said.

But both Wall Street analysts and the company had been expecting a slight decline. The weaker results were attributed to costs associated with Luby's acquisition last year of the Wyatt's cafeteria chain, said Erben and Laura Bishop, Luby's chief financial officer.

Monday, Luby's board accepted Erben's immediate retirement. John B. Lahourcade will be chairman and chief executive officer only until permanent replacements are chosen.

The company's cafeterias are comfortable places where families meet to share a meal, choosing their roast beef, mashed potatoes and fruit pie from the line. There are plenty of high chairs, and it seems that nearly every child there is occupied, ultimately, with a colorful bowl of Jell-O.

On Thursday and Friday, the 100 workers at company headquarters in San Antonio gathered to talk and pray.

"We obviously created more pressure than what we realized," Erben said last weekend. "It is horrible to feel that maybe I led him to where his life seemed intolerable."

Of course any chief executive's job is demanding. "We have 226 cafeterias, and we've got problems every day," Erben said. But he thought that Curtis, so solid as he helped run the business for years, was ready for the challenges. "Maybe he felt that at that time they were mine, and now they were his."

_ Information from Knight-Ridder/-Tribune Business News was used in this report.