Big Isle plant lover created $2M botanical garden
Dan Lutkenhouse / 1921-2007
Dan Lutkenhouse, who spent more than $2 million to create the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden on the Big Island, died Feb. 12 in Hilo. He was 85.
After retiring from a 40-year career as a trucking business owner, Lutkenhouse moved to the Big Island in 1978 with a passion for flora and fauna.
Pudding Lassiter remembered how her mother, local botany expert Kapua Heuer, would announce Lutkenhouse's arrival at their home. "'Old Blue Eyes' is at the house again. He's asking about flowers again," she would say.
Lutkenhouse spent more than $2 million to create the botanical garden on 17 acres facing little Onomea Bay, north of Hilo.
Born Daniel James Lutkenhouse to a Cleveland family affluent enough to have a pet monkey, Lutkenhouse ran away from home when he was 14, so broke that he lived on bananas for six days, said former employee Ed Johnston. A private detective brought him home.
Returning to bananas and other plants in retirement with his wife, Pauline, Lutkenhouse worked seven days a week cutting down jungle at Onomea, planting his favorite species, opening his garden in 1984.
But almost as fast as Lutkenhouse planted, thieves dug up his ornamentals and sold them to new resorts in West Hawaii, said Johnston.
Lutkenhouse placed razor wire around the garden, stopping thieves but also cutting off shoreline access to fishermen and blocking a historic trail, Johnston said. Later, he built un-permitted stone dams across two streams.
The actions might have come from Lutkenhouse's strong belief in doing things himself, said Johnston, who quit and turned critic. With the Sierra Club and others, Johnston filed legal actions that took about four years to settle.
But Lutkenhouse also had a playful side that the public did not see. He once drove to the store with a Post-it note on his dog's head, "Buy dog food," Lassiter said. He loved watching his pet flamingos and macaws.
Another side emerged in 2000 when Lutkenhouse donated $135,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of Hilo, paying off a tax debt that would have closed the facility. Lutkenhouse started giving scholarships to nursing students. Classes of schoolchildren have free entry into the garden, now a nonprofit corporation.
"He's always had a real generous side to him," Lassiter said.
Lutkenhouse is survived by wife Pauline, son Dan, daughter Debara Frost, sister Jean Rex, sister-in-law Lois Lutkenhouse and four grandchildren.
An outdoor service will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday overlooking Onomea Bay. Parking is at the garden, with a shuttle to the service site from 1 p.m.