Harry Edward Luther – 5th January 1952 – 17th October 2012
From Dennis Cathcart, Tropiflora, Sarasota, Florida
The Passing of Harry Luther
In a world full of experts, there are very few authorities but Harry was one. The news of Harry Luther’s passing on Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 at the age of only 60 years flashed around the globe, but the reality of it is still sinking in. The loss of Harry Luther to the scientific community is immeasurable; where will we turn now for information, for plant descriptions for clarity in the confusing world of plant taxonomy? But ever so much more, the loss of a beloved friend, so suddenly, is deeply shocking. As a dear and longtime friend of Harry’s; Mike Bush put it “the world is a bit smaller today…”
Sadly for us at Tropiflora his loss is so great because Harry was more than a font of knowledge; he was a true and dear friend. I have known Harry since he was a very young man, in the early 70’s, as a member of the Florida West Coast Bromeliad Society in Clearwater. Even back then Harry was the local authority and was considered a ‘wunderkind’ by most of the senior members that included Dr. Dexter, Dr. Logue, Jinks Watkins and other experienced growers of the day. I immediately became friends with Harry, a friendship that grew deeper and truer over the many years since.
Because of Harry’s rather solitary lifestyle and inability to drive due to tunnel vision, he was somewhat of a hermit at the Marie Selby Botanical Garden where he lived and worked. Linda felt sorry for him living all alone with no one to talk to and no one to care for him. After the passing of his mother and especially after he had his heart attack, Linda would keep close tabs on him to be sure that he was eating properly and had groceries and more importantly; someone to talk too. Harry would spend hours in the evenings on the phone with Linda and they talked about anything but plants. Linda kept Harry up to date on our family activities and queried him about his health and gave him a sounding board to vent frustrations and talk about his health problems and just to be human. She never asked anything of Harry, something that few of us can say.
Harry was a dear friend of our family and many times we would invite him to share Thanksgiving dinner or come to our house on Christmas to enjoy the holiday with our family. Some people would be surprised when we would tell them that we took Harry out to see Christmas lights or shopping or just to dinner. Most of us knew Harry as a professional and more than that, a truly dedicated professional that lived his life’s interest. He did truly dedicate his life to his work and spared no effort in elevating Selby Gardens to its status as a world class scientific institution. Of course this also later came to break Harry’s heart when Selby changed course and began to abandon the science in favor of becoming more of a park and wedding chapel. Harry’s last days there were sheer torture as he felt that they did everything they could to drive him out. It was a shameful chapter in Selby history and one that I thought had fatally damaged their reputation.
Linda and I were instrumental in getting Harry to consider a move to Singapore and I took him over for his initial interview where he was received with open arms and made to feel so welcome that the decision was made much easier for him. I am extremely grateful to his coworkers and friends like Dr. Tan, Anton Van Der Shans and his old friend Mike Bush and others there that treated Harry with kindness, warmth and the respect that he deserved. I cannot allow myself to think anything but that this move was a great one for Harry and that it would have led to greater and greater things for him in the future. The Gardens by the Bay has lost a valuable asset, we all have lost a great resource and those who knew Harry personally have lost a great friend and his passing has left a void than can never be filled.
Feeling quite bitter about losing my dear friend so suddenly and the way he was treated here in his adopted home town of Sarasota, I was snapped out of my mood by our old friend and Harry’s boss; Dr. Kiat Tan who came into the nursery Saturday unannounced. My great feeling of gratitude to Dr. Tan for the opportunities he afforded us with regards to the Gardens by the Bay project and our respect for him for at giving a new home to Harry when he needed it the most brought me out of my funk. We spoke about what had happened and he told me of the warm way that his coworkers had arranged a wake for him on Friday, attended by seventy people, to bid Harry a farewell. All his new friends in Singapore, all those that made him welcome and brought him purpose and happiness were there with remembrances of a brief but happy time working together on one of the world’s most incredible garden projects. We also shared our frustration at the way Harry had been, in our opinion, forced to leave Sarasota, but the Doc has a way of seeing things more clearly than most. Asking himself, he wondered what he could do to honor Harry. What would be the best thing to keep his memory and his work alive? He felt as he arrived back in Sarasota where he had in fact help build Selby Gardens many years ago, that this is where Harry truly belonged. Even though things turned bad in the end, it is here that most of us, most of you no doubt, remember Harry and his work. Harry is part of Sarasota and yes, Selby history. His thirty years of dedicated service at Selby had seen an amazing body of work from building their world class living collections, herbarium and publishing over 200 papers and other works. Harry is, still, part of Selby as much as the buildings and the trees and perhaps more than any persons still working there.
Dr. Tan, in hopes of seeing something lasting to honor Harry’s memory and his works and to continue Harry’s interests in education and taxonomy, thinks that a Harry Luther Bromeliad Research Center would be an appropriate memorial to the man. It is without a doubt that Selby, as an institution regrets ever loosing Harry and his expertise, and this may be a way for them to pay an honor to Harry and to reestablish bromeliad research at Selby as they have recently (at the WBC in Orlando) expressed an interest in doing. Will it happen? Do you have an opinion about this? What better way would there to be to honor Harry and his life’s work than to have it continue under his name at the institution that he helped build and still loved? Will they do this? Maybe your interest will help them decide. Within hours of his passing, Selby set up a ‘Memorial Fund’ in Harry Luther’s name. Many eyebrows were raised at that, what were they going to do with the money?? This would be a good opportunity to use it in a way that would be meaningful and functional. I would suggest that you contact the Marie Selby Botanical Garden at firstname.lastname@example.org and state your opinion. Likewise, talking to those on the board of the BSI would be in order as it was the BSI and Selby that proposed the new BRC. Naming it in Harry’s honor would seem a small deed and one that could go a long way to repair ill feelings and give due recognition to a singular and stellar personality in the bromeliad world.
You only have to look at the FaceBook or see some of the emails going around to know that many will be opposed to anything regarding Harry’s name and Selby. However as Dr. Tan pointed out, if not Selby then where? What else could be done that would generate as much interest and keep Harry’s name out front? All work done there would carry his name: Proceedings of the Harry Luther Bromeliad Research Center, etc. What else could possibly be as enduring and where else would his name be as recognized? Please think of this, of what would be best for Harry’s memory before shooting down this idea.