Arboretum Founder’s Legacy Lives On With Boardwalk Naming


Hank Whitter, Ph.D., was once asked, “What’s going to happen to the Arboretum when you’re no longer here?”

Whittier, who helped lead the movement in the early 80s for a protected green space on UCF’s campus, was not concerned. There’s always someone next in line whose passion matches your own, he explained.

“Just look at Central Park in New York,” he said. “It’s continued to evolve into the 21st century. It still exists because the community wants it, and there are people to guide its growth.”

Whittier’s faith in the next generation’s leadership was well-placed. Since its launch in 1983 and its recovery from a devastating hurricane in 2004, the Arboretum continues to expand both physically and in influence. Now 82 acres, the Arboretum encompasses a wide variety of native Florida terrains, including a cypress dome and sand pine habitats.

Whittier died in 2008, but he’s far from forgotten. His own legacy was permanently recognized at a recent event, with a reconstructed boardwalk named in his honor. His widow, Barbara Whittier, said he would be thrilled and humbled by the recognition. But, knowing her husband, the true joy would be seeing that student involvement continues to grow.

“That was the single most important thing to him,” she said in an interview at her Oviedo home. “He loved seeing the excitement on students’ faces when they came in ready to get to work and learn.” 

That living classroom aspect was just as important to Whittier as safeguarding land from a rapidly expanding campus. For many years, most of the sciences classes were housed in a single building that backed up directly onto the Arboretum land. Professors like  Whittier could give a 15-minute lecture on small mammal biology, ornithology or plant identification, then spend the rest of instruction time in a hands-on lesson instead of reading out of a book.

“I think that’s the hook,” said Barbara Whittier, who taught high school biology for many years. “A lot of students are discouraged because they don’t have great reading skills or they’re not great test takers. But there’s so much more to learning than that, and the Arboretum really opened their eyes to those possibilities.”

Putting together the Arboretum was not a simple task. As the university grew, the master plan included new buildings for priorities like the arts, business and education. Fraternities, apartment buildings and parking lots began to spring up on the outskirts of campus. And with the arrival of Gemini Circle ringing the campus, the Whittiers knew the wooded areas on that newly established border were in danger of development.

Even as Whittier began lobbying leadership for conservation land on campus, students, staff and faculty set to work. They gave up their weekends and evenings to spend long hours slogging through the woods, marking future walking paths and hauling out trash.

When the Arboretum was officially recognized in 1983, it launched a new channel of conservation education and public outreach for the university. The natural laboratory extended beyond campus and became a prime teaching ground for local K-12 schools. Staff, faculty, students and the public could escape into the well-maintained trails for a little peaceful re-connection with nature. And the homes of local species like gopher tortoises were spared.

Now more than 30 years later, Arboretum leadership has not only maintained that original vision, but expanded on it. A garden is teaching horticulture and filling the Knights Pantry with fresh, free produce. Bee hives are supplying pollinators on campus and hands-on lessons for students interested in apiary work. An established prescribed fire program is improving the conservation of the plants and animals living in the Arboretum’s natural areas Dr. Whittier was so keen to protect. And future plans include resources like an amphitheater for large-scale classes.

“Hank would love all of it. It’s evolved in a way that closely meets the needs of students,” Barbara Whittier said.



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