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Bill Whitman (1914-2007)

A pioneering U.S. East Coast surfer (and horticulturist) has left us. Dudley Whitman's brother Bill has passed on at age 92:

[Excerpt from: "Surfer, horticulturist William Whitman dies," BY DAVID SMILEY, MIAMI HERALD, June 1, 2007 ]

-- The surfboard Bill Whitman built in 1932, the first of its kind in Florida, helped earn him a spot in the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.

-- The underwater camera he invented and patented in 1951 shot footage that ended up in the Oscar-winning documentary "The Sea Around Us."

-- And the 600 truckloads of rich, acidic soil he had dumped in his Bal Harbour backyard in the 1950s nurtured a world-famous grove of exotic, tropical fruits.

-- Throughout his 92 years, the horticulturist scoured the world for tropical fruits -- breadfruit, Kohala longan and a 40-pound jackfruit. All in all, Whitman is credited with introducing 80 varieties to the United States and donating more than $5 million to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

William ''Bill'' Francis Whitman Jr. died in his home Wednesday.

He was born June 30, 1914 in Chicago, but as a boy the family moved to an oceanfront home in Miami Beach.

In 1932, he and his younger brother Dudley Whitman wanted to surf Hawaiian-style. But there weren't any surf shops selling boards anywhere in Florida, let alone the East Coast. So, the brothers made their own, according to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, of which both are members.

The elder Whitman continued to surf well into his 80s.

''He was probably one of the greatest underwater men that ever lived,'' said brother Stanley Whitman.

Added brother Dudley: ``He was more fish than man.''

An example of the brothers' 80-plus pound surfboards can be seen in their private museum at the Whitman-owned Bal Harbour Shops.

On their trips to the Pacific after World War II, the brothers learned new trades, including spearfishing, which they introduced to the East Coast and Caribbean, Dudley Whitman said.

In 1951, Bill Whitman wanted to show friends back in South Florida a glimpse of the South Pacific, so he created the first underwater camera and began shooting film below the surface, Dudley said.

Early films earned the brothers nominations for Academy Awards. They sold some of the scenes they shot to filmmakers for use in the 1952 documentary "The Sea Around Us." The film won an Oscar.

''We won the academy award and we weren't even in the business,'' Dudley Whitman said.

Despite the accolades, Whitman was possibly best known for his expertise and accomplishments in horticulture.

He devoted himself to bringing back to South Florida many of the exotic fruit species he found in the South Pacific.

He found the sand and marl in his own backyard unfit to nurture the fragile plantlife, so he had 600 truckloads of richacidic soil taken from Greynolds Park area and dumped in his Bal Harbour backyard.

He continued to scour the world -- from the Amazon to Borneo to the Australian rain forests -- for species he could bring back to United States.

His traveling partner on many of the trips Whitman made late in his life was Steve Brady. By that time, Brady said, Whitman could hardly walk and used a wheelchair.

But that was no deterrent.

''If it involved his passions he would go to the ends of the earth,'' Brady said.

In 1999, Whitman donated $1 million to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, where the Whitman Pavilion was erected in his honor. In 2003, he added $4 million to endow the tropical fruit program.

He also helped found the Rare Fruit Council in 1955, and served as president until 1960.

In 2001, Whitman authored the book, "Five Decades with Tropical Fruits: A Personal Journey."

Whitman's accomplishments earned him an honorary doctorate from the University of Florida's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences in 2004. He earned his bachelor's in administration from the school in 1939.

A public memorial will be held at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in November. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be sent to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

In addition to brothers Dudley and Stanley, Whitman is survived by wife Angela Whitman and children Christopher Whitman, Pamela Whitman Mattson and Eric Whitman.

(The Whitmans at the First East Coast Surfing Championships, Daytona, Florida, 1938)

[Excerpt of: "Bill Whitman, 92, Is Dead; Scoured the Earth for Rare Fruit," By DAVID KARP, NEW YORK TIMES, June 4, 2007 with Correction Appended ]

William F. Whitman Jr., a self-taught horticulturist who became renowned for collecting rare tropical fruits from around the world and popularizing them in the United States, died Wednesday at his home in Bal Harbour, Fla. He was 92.

Mr. Whitman, who had suffered strokes and a heart attack, died in his sleep, his wife, Angela, said.

Among rare-fruit devotees, Bill Whitman, as he was known, was hailed as the only person to have coaxed a mangosteen tree into bearing fruit outdoors in the continental United States. Native to Southeast Asia, mangosteen is notoriously finicky and cold-sensitive.

That did not deter Mr. Whitman, whose garden is propitiously situated between Biscayne Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, minimizing the danger of catastrophic freezes. (Mangosteen is the most prominent of the exotic “superfruits” like goji and noni, which are made into high-priced beverages from imported purées.)

Mr. Whitman managed to cultivate other fastidiously tropical species like rambutan and langsat, and he was recognized as the first in the United States to popularize miracle fruit, a berry that tricks the palate into perceiving sour tastes as sweet.

In pursuit of rare fruit, “Bill was a monomaniac,” said Stephen S. Brady, his doctor and friend, who traveled with him. “He’d hear about a fruit tree, and pursue it like a pit bull to the ends of the earth.”

Richard J. Campbell, senior curator of tropical fruit at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla., went on many of these expeditions. “When people said, ‘You can’t grow that in Florida,’ he took that as a challenge,” Mr. Campbell said.

William Francis Whitman Jr. was born in 1914 in Chicago, a son of William Sr. and Leona Whitman. His father owned a printing company in Chicago and added to his fortune by developing real estate in Miami.

Bill and his brothers helped pioneer surfing in Florida, and he was inducted into the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 1998.

After serving in the Coast Guard during World War II, Mr. Whitman, along with his brother Dudley, built and patented an underwater camera that provided film for several movies, including “The Sea Around Us,” which won an Academy Award for best documentary in 1952.

Mr. Whitman’s devotion to collecting and propagating rare species and varieties stemmed from a sailing trip to Tahiti, where he became enchanted by the fruit. Mr. Whitman was a founder of the Rare Fruit Council International, based in Miami, and was its first president, from 1955 to 1960. Foremost among the fruit he introduced to Florida was Kohala longan...

Notable Bill Whitman Links at LEGENDARY SURFERS:

-- Surfing's Beginnings in Florida, early 1930s

-- Tom Blake-Whitmans Connection

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