Remembering Bill Lutkenhouse: Charming, obstreperous, insightful, kind

A practicing Catholic, and longstanding member of St. Joseph the Worker’s congregation, William (Bill) Lutkenhouse would have been pleased to know that he died on Good Friday, and especially after receiving the last rites from Father Nobrega just two days earlier.

After celebrating his 92nd birthday at the end of January, he said, “I’m finally beginning to feel my age,” although he was still walking everywhere in the days before suffering a devastating fall in his apartment. He’d have been pleased about that, too, as he’d long ago expressed the desire to die where he’d lived for more than 30 years, with its panoramic views of the Berkeley Hills and north.

My decision to write publicly about Bill and his passing was prompted by the knowledge that he’d walked daily all over town for decades, taking an interest in, and freely engaging with, whomever he encountered along the way, making him a familiar figure, if only by sight, to a great many people who might be wondering where he is these days.

Bill was very well known to many as an active participant in local affairs, regularly attending City Council and Rent Board meetings, taking classes at the North Berkeley Senior Center, attending music recitals, and frequenting the libraries, as well  as being an active member of the Toastmasters for many years.

Those of us who knew Bill recognized his temperament as oscillating between being charming and obstreperous. His black-and-white perspective, alternately myopic and expansive, gentle and bombastic, left no one doubting how he felt or where he stood on any subject. He thoroughly enjoyed being controversial and regaling all who would hear him expound on his experiences as well as his social, cultural, and political opinions.

A proud alumnus of the University of Santa Clara Law School, he was dismissive about never managing to pass the bar examination, feeling that his J.D. degree was sufficient to call himself a lawyer, and would frequently offer his often unorthodox analyses of contemporary legal disputes. Everyone he encountered provided an opportunity for him to express his passionate interests and opinions on every sphere of human activity, especially U.S., European and military history, as well as the arts.

Few of us have Bill’s impressive and extraordinarily detailed memory of the people he had known and encountered, the places he’d travelled, the wide range of experiences he’d had, and the library of books he’d devoured and digested throughout his life. Not satisfied with just absorbing what he came across along the way, he made his own contributions, showing considerable ability in his writings, sketches, paintings and musicianship. He would invariably express, in one way or another, what a reader or viewer might find to be an unexpectedly tender insight into the mystery of mankind’s glory and the limitations in The Great Scheme of Things.

Bill loved children, and delighted in their company. Supported by only a small VA pension, he sponsored operations for those born with cleft palates through the Smile Train organization; the innumerable before-and-after photos covering a large section of his kitchen wall a testament to his desire to make a positive contribution in the world. He was also sponsoring a child in The Philippines, even as he locally bought hamburgers for the two youngsters who sat with their mother outside the downtown Trader Joe’s for a while.

Those of us who knew and loved Bill and who experienced his good will and generosity over the years will miss his quirky presence in our lives. We will also remember his unique manifestation of the complicated nature of being human expressed by one who lived to experience and participate in as much as he possibly could right to the end.