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Remembering John Hankinson Jr., Towering Force in Environmental Protection in Flagler and Elsewhere

| March 5, 2017

John Hankinson Jr. on an island along the Matanzas River last year. (Chris Kelly)

John Hankinson Jr. on an island along the Matanzas River last year. (Chris Kelly)

John Hankinson Jr., a towering force in the environmental community, a long-time resident of Summer Haven just north of Marineland and a frequent performer in the local musical scene as Johnny Matanzas, died Friday. He was 68. He was the former director of Planning and Acquisition for the St. Johns River Water Management District, regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in Atlanta, and, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, executive director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. He was appointed to that position by President Obama. “John figured out that perfect balance in life,” Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland said of Hankinson. “He created a career around his passion, which was the protection of the environment, but most importantly a life by which all who knew and loved him mattered most, a sense of community, a preservation of history, an eye for the future and to love life. Flagler County Attorney Al Hadeed, who knew Hankinson well professionally and personally, wrote the following account of Hankinson’s legacy locally and beyond.

Services are scheduled for Tuesday, March 7, at 3 p.m. at Fort King Presbyterian Church, 13 Northeast 36th Ave Rd., Ocala

By Al Hadeed

John was a grand person, somewhat a modern day Da Vinci.  He was a patriot of Florida, having invested a professional career in environmental acquisitions in many parts of the state with a quiet visionary force.  But he also excelled as an engaging musician and bandleader with a great sense of soul, personality and humor with his bands, “Johnny Matanzas and the Hombres” and, earlier in Atlanta, “The Nonessentials.”   With his wife, Gail, he also was a consummate host and cook whether in the Ocala National Forest, or other wilderness place or at his historic house in Summer Haven, whether in a kitchen or outdoors with his specially designed and fabricated “Armagrilla,” named for one of Florida’s own, the armadillo. 

For his love of natural Florida, John ran the environmental lands program at the St. Johns River Water Management District during the earliest era of Florida’s quest to save its special places.  He led the way in the state by targeting large acreage acquisitions and connecting them in a way that preserved ecosystems and not just isolated parks that had limited value in preserving large and complex native systems.  This is what he taught us specifically in Flagler.  He showed us what greenways were and how they enhanced the quality of life and how to use them as a valuable land planning tool. 

When Flagler bought the very first phase of Princess Place in the early 1990’s, with all community leaders basking in the County’s success, he laid down a challenge: “Now look around, all around this property and across the waters that adjoin it.  You will have to protect everything you can see from the Princess Place.”  Protecting the “view shed,” he called it.  And pointing out that we had the opportunity to protect a vital ecosystem relatively untouched since Florida’s earliest founding. 

Hankinson could see what it would take to protect the “view shed” around Princess Place.

That guidance was taken to heart, as Flagler bought or worked with other agencies and organizations to acquire all of the Pellicer Creek Corridor, amounting to thousands of acres, all for the benefit of the public in perpetuity.  This led to more key acquisitions in other parts of Flagler protecting its diverse native ecosystems.   

Flagler then went beyond to lure the National Estuarine Research Reserve to this area.  Now 40,000 contiguous acres of land and waters have been preserved, creating one of the most spectacular and healthy estuarine ecosystems in Florida.  He was the catalyst that sparked this to happen, inspiring many others to pick up the lead.

He worked hard in other parts of the State where there were challenges in achieving environmental protection such as in the Everglades, the Ocklawaha River basin and Lake Apopka in central Florida or in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

On the national level, when he was the Director of the EPA Regional Office in Atlanta, he shepherded a major urban redesign, infill project.  Called Project Excel by the EPA, he oversaw the permitting and master planning of a site for a former manufacturing plant that needed environmental remediation.  The property was cleaned and redeveloped into a live work and play urban community called Atlantic Station.  It reduced car trips and had a measurable effect on reducing auto emissions in the city.  The project turned out to be the only urban Project Excel in the Nation, and John Hankinson did it, bringing together the local, state and federal governments and numerous private parties.  He was good at building collaboration through partnerships.

hankinson armagrilla

John Hankinson’s ‘Armagrilla,’ his specially designed and fabricated grill. Click on the image for larger view. (© Al Hadeed)

Later in his career, after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, he was asked by the White House to be the Executive Director of the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force, a multi-state scientific committee to guide the restoration efforts of this region of the United States.

But he was more than an environmental and land use visionary.  He was a good father with his wife, Gail, who raised two sons who today are scientists.  He made people laugh and he made people dream.

John Henry Hankinson’s name is known in every quarter of Florida.  He has touched all of the special places in Florida, not just ours in this region.  He was a true visionary and leader in environmental preservation and protection.  Without his footprint here in Flagler, without his guidance, we would never have achieved the expanse and quality of our greenways that have earned national distinction.

He leaves us the enduring legacy of his work.

Al Hadeed, attorney for the Flagler County Commission, played a central role in the environmental acquisition of the Princess Place Preserve and the creation of the greenway around it.

john hankinson

John Hankinson. (© Al Hadeed)

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13 Responses for “Remembering John Hankinson Jr., Towering Force in Environmental Protection in Flagler and Elsewhere”

  1. Carol Fisher says:

    What a beautifully written tribute by Al Hadeed. Thank you for your service, John Hankinson, and thank you for the tribute, Al Hadeed. And thank you to Flagler Live for bringing this to my attention.

  2. Alfred Malefatto says:

    Al, thank you for this wonderful tribute to John Henry Hankinson. John and I met at the University of Florida Law School 40 years ago. He taught me so much about Florida. That chance meeting grew to where I am one of many who considered him one of my best friends, a brother from another mother. He will be sorely missed, but his spirit and legacy will on through the thousands of acres he helped protect, and his wonderful family, both immediate and universal. Keep on rockin’ John Henry!

  3. Rob Vandiver says:

    Wonderful tribute to John Henry- I worked with John many years ago in the Florida House of Representatives. The only thing missing from from the tribute was John Henry’s killer volleyball skills. We used to play every Sunday afternoon in Tallahassee. The games were great and the friendships were better. Rest in peace, my brother.

  4. palmcoaster says:

    Community and Earth have lost an outstanding gentleman.

  5. Shannon Estenoz says:

    John was an original – an old soul, a true friend, a family man who lived his values. He brought people together to make music, to laugh, to eat jambalaya, to play beach volleyball and horseshoes, to protect natural places. To Richard and to me he was friend and mentor (professional and musical). We were last together in January at the Everglades Coalition conference where we spent an evening playing music together. I am grateful for that evening and for all the memories we have of John Henry. To me he never seemed to live life in a hurry, and his life was full of love, joy and meaning. To echo Al Hadeed’s lovely tribute: John was a towering example for our times.

  6. Kathryn Collins says:

    Wow, beautifully written and really embodies the amazing and talent-filled life he led. Thank you for a wonderful article!

  7. Bill Honker says:

    A beautifully written tribute, indeed. I had the privilege to work with John on the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force. John’s work in developing a Gulf Coast Restoration Strategy was a key factor in triggering the RESTORE Act, which is resulting in billions of dollars being invested in the Gulf Coast. In addition to Gulf restoration, John and I also shared music as a second vocation. One of my favorite memories of John was driving around Louisiana over a two or three day period to meet with various Gulf stakeholders with a soundtrack of his blues music alternating with my bluegrass in the CD player. A great leader, partner, and friend. He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered!

  8. Martha Musgrove says:

    “John-Henry” — has a commanding sound, eh? — Hankinson had a real knack for bringing diverse people together to get things done. He inspired and he pushed and picked the right things to do, too.

  9. cls says:

    Wow, I wish I had known him. Scary he died so young. I knew several people who worked for the EPA in Atlanta too. RIP, John.

  10. Pat Harden says:

    Thank you, Al. A fitting tribute to a great guy and a true Floridian. He will be missed, we are blessed to have called him “friend.”

  11. Dennis Stotts says:

    I first met John Henry in 1968 at Florida Presbyterian College (now called Eckerd College). Even then, he always had a smile on his face and a great love of music. He was great fun to be around, had stories to tell, and was a friend to everyone. He stayed that way for the next 5 decades. No matter how serious the matter, he brought his sense of humor to the table. We will miss you, my friend.

  12. Christine Price says:

    On behalf of John Henry’s California tribe, thank you for this article and will miss all parts of his giant self – his heart, his humor and his generosity.

  13. Colin lake says:

    Thank you so much for writing this article. My Uncle will be missed.
    R.I.P. Uncle John

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