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A Local Life: John Hoke, 85, never ran out of inventive ideas

John Hoke and his family are shown preparing for a summer trip to the Floriday Keys in 1955.
John Hoke and his family are shown preparing for a summer trip to the Floriday Keys in 1955.
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By Emma Brown
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 12:20 AM

John Hoke was fired from the federal government in 1962 because he wanted to build a boat powered by the sun.

Posted to South America with the U.S. Agency for International Development, he devised a collapsible watercraft that would run on solar energy. He said the boat, gliding along at three miles an hour, would carry him up the rivers of Suriname on a diplomatic mission to install radio receivers in far-flung villages and win friends among indigenous tribes.

When the boat's $28,000 price tag reached the U.S. House, a livid representative from Virginia said Mr. Hoke's scheme appeared to have emerged straight from "never-never land." The congressman demanded Mr. Hoke's dismissal and ordered a wider investigation of USAID's expenditures.

Some years later, the Army tested the solar-boat design, Mr. Hoke told The Washington Post, and found that it functioned "exactly as I said it would."

John Hoke, a writer, naturalist and inveterate tinkerer, was 85 when he died Feb. 25 of respiratory failure at his home in Bethesda. He spent much of his life dreaming up ideas that the world wasn't quite ready for, but his unconventional thinking did succeed in turning some of Washington's barren and stinky decorative pools into living ecosystems crowded with turtles, fish and waterfowl.

He eventually worked his way back into federal service with the Interior Department , where he was charged with helping to manage Washington's urban parklands. For decades, he was known as the cigar-chomping fellow who rode around in an electric golf cart, patrolling the Mall and environs.

In the winter, he favored a Sherlock Holmes-style cape that fit his 6-foot-5 frame. During summer, he fended off the heavy humidity with a solar-powered, air-conditioned pith helmet of his own invention.

In 1977, Mr. Hoke campaigned to persuade government officials to install a garden atop the Interior Department's seven-story D.C. headquarters. The rooftop refuge would save heating and air-conditioning costs throughout the year, acting "as insulation," Mr. Hoke told The Post at the time, "just as the earth roof of a yurt keeps it warm in winter and cool in summer."

He envisioned a time when the city's office buildings would all be topped with soil, trees and birds. "The roofs of Washington are a vast undiscovered country," he said, "and here we have an opportunity to put back - eight, 10, 15 stories up in the air - the natural environment we destroyed and stripped bare on the ground."

His vision languished for more than three decades, until 2008, when Interior Department officials cut the ribbon on a new green roof, hailed in news releases for its insulating effects and other benefits.

Bureaucrats did occasionally listen to Mr. Hoke. At his insistence, the National Park Service bought a fleet of electric golf carts for traveling around Washington area parks. Mr. Hoke had proved the carts' hardiness by using one to journey the length of the C&O Canal, more than 180 miles from Georgetown to Cumberland, Md.

He was perhaps best known in Washington for his madcap and ultimately brilliant effort in the late 1960s to relocate tons of mud and marsh plants from Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens to Simon Bolivar Pond at 18th and C streets NW. He brought turtles, too, that he and his children had found injured on rescue missions around Washington.


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