The Life & Legacy of Catherine “Kay” Hauberg Sweeney

Savior of The Kampong

By Jon Letman, Editor

Half a planet away from the frozen Antarctic peaks that would one day bear her family name, Catherine Denkmann Hauberg was born in 1915 along the banks of the Mississippi River in Rock Island, Illinois.

“Kay” (as her younger brother called her), was the granddaughter of German-born Frederick Denkmann who, with his brother-in-law, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, launched what would become a lumber empire that later enabled her to be a patron of education, exploration, music, art, and plant conservation, ultimately becoming the “savior of The Kampong,” NTBG’s garden in Coconut Grove, Florida.

Kay was a quiet, but ambitious girl. Inheriting her father’s sense of curiosity, she memorized the names of the trees, birds, and wildflowers that lived in the woods surrounding her home. Her fascination with nature grew when, at the age of 19, Kay’s cousin, a botanist at Chicago’s Field Museum, took her to Guatemala on an orchid collecting trip.

After graduating from boarding school in Massachusetts in the early 1930s, Kay earned a degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign before studying zoology at the University of Arizona.

In 1938 Kay became Mrs. Sweeney when she married Edward C. Sweeney, a professor of aviation law and one-time president of the Explorer’s Club. The newlyweds moved to Washington D.C. and before long she was busy raising two daughters and three sons.

The modest Mrs. Sweeney, who also enjoyed caring for flower beds and pottering about the garden, once referred to herself as “just a lady gardener,” but she possessed a strong will, independence, and endless curiosity. She wasn’t an extrovert, but always made time for anyone seeking her acquaintance.

A Passion for Plants

Mrs. Sweeney’s passion for tropical plants was fueled by travels in Mexico, East Africa, and South Asia. As a board member of the U.S. National Arboretum in the 1950s and 60s, Mrs. Sweeney enjoyed traveling with her friend Edith “Jackie” Ronne whose 1947-48 Antarctic expedition she helped fund and was recognized with the naming of the Sweeney Mountains.

It was during a trip to Miami that she and Jackie visited the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden where Mrs. Sweeney posed a plant question. After it was suggested that she pay a visit to the garden’s namesake, renowned plant explorer Dr. David Fairchild, who lived just up the road in a compound he called The Kampong, Mrs. Sweeney found the botanist was not only home, but all too happy to help.

“What may I do for you ladies?” the mustachioed Fairchild asked.

A Chance Encounter

What might have otherwise been just a chance encounter between Fairchild and Mrs. Sweeney, laid the groundwork for what would decades later form the union of the Fairchild’s private estate and the Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden (PTBG) in Hawaiʻi.

David Fairchild died in 1954 (nearly ten years to the day before PTBG was established) and after his wife passed away in 1962, Mrs. Sweeney was contacted by a relative of Fairchild’s who she had known from Washington. When asked if she was interested in buying The Kampong, Mrs. Sweeney leapt at the chance.

Initially, her husband was taken aback, but the idea of retiring in south Florida did have its appeal and so, in 1963, the Sweeneys purchased The Kampong, a move that protected the property from what almost certainly would have been a future of subdivision and development.

Mrs. and Mr. Sweeney traveled between Washington and The Kampong for several years, staying in the property’s Barbour Cottage until garden renovations were complete. After Mr. Sweeney passed away in 1967, Mrs. Sweeney permanently moved down to Florida.

As the new owner of The Kampong, Mrs. Sweeney continued to travel in the tropics. It was during a trip to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in February 1966, that Mrs. Sweeney was introduced to a young tea plantation manager named Larry Schokman. The two became fast friends with Larry serving as driver and guide, leading Mrs. Sweeney as they explored the flora and fauna of the central highlands on the first of her three visits to the island.

In the Company of an Adventurer

In a 2014 interview, Larry described how while winding along mountain roads Mrs. Sweeney would direct him to pull off to the side so she could examine, photograph, and collect whatever plant happened to catch her eye. He later realized he was in the company of his first botanical adventurer.  “Whether one collects 20,000 plants or 20 plants,” he said, “a plant explorer is a plant explorer.”

Recounting how she thrust her hands beneath rocks to collect plants, Larry called out to his fearless companion, “Kay, don’t do this­ — there are cobras and vipers. This is the bloody heart of the tropics for godsakes!”

Larry’s wife Colleen also recalled traversing Sri Lanka with her husband and Mrs. Sweeney, watching in amazement as the robust 50-some-year-old woman scampered up steep slopes at 5,000 feet, pulling plants from underneath rocks to take home and painstakingly press each night.

After the Schokmans relocated from Sri Lanka to the U.S., Mrs. Sweeney invited Larry to work for her at The Kampong as superintendent in the spring of 1974. On Larry’s first day in Miami she presented him with a copy of David Fairchild’s book The World Was My Garden: Travels of a Plant Explorer, saying, “I would like you to read it and we can discuss it sooner rather than later.”

His long association with Mrs. Sweeney, Larry said, opened his mind in more ways than he could describe, and led him to eventually serve as Director of The Kampong where he lived and worked alongside Mrs. Sweeney for more than two decades.

Larry recalled fondly how Mrs. Sweeney hosted extraordinary visitors who engaged in lively discussions of art and architecture, politics, plants, and world travels with their unassuming hostess. Mrs. Sweeney was, in Larry’s words, “remarkably intelligent and strong” with “no false airs and graces.” Colleen called her “just a lovely person.”

A Lasting Legacy

A dozen years after Mrs. Sweeney had become a member of the PTBG Board of Trustees, she made the decision to gift her home to the Hawaii-based organization in 1984, the same year The Kampong was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The addition of a garden in Florida gave PTBG the opportunity to petition Congress to change its name to National Tropical Botanical Garden[1], reflecting the fact that it now had a property in the other tropical part of the country­.

Mrs. Sweeney continued to live at The Kampong until her death in January 1995, leaving behind a rich legacy of helping people and saving places. Throughout her life, Mrs. Sweeney was a “patron of arts, education, and sciences” (as noted in her New York Times obituary), often anonymously supporting people, plants, and the causes she most cherished.

Today Mrs. Sweeney’s daughter Harriet Fraunfelter, who serves as an NTBG Trustee and on The Kampong’s Board of Governors, said her mother would be pleased with the direction The Kampong has gone. “She would be thrilled with what Craig [Director of The Kampong] is doing now, and with the quality of the horticulture,” Harriet said.

Furthermore, Mrs. Sweeney, who is remembered as a lifetime advocate for protecting plants and advancing education, forged deep ties with Harvard University through Dr. Barry Tomlinson and Dr. Dick Howard who taught over 20 years of tropical botany classes at The Kampong. Mrs. Sweeney’s unflagging commitment to tropical botany and education continues today as the National Tropical Botanical Garden partners with Florida International University to create the International Center for Tropical Botany at The Kampong.  This new facility is planned to be built immediately adjacent to The Kampong in the years ahead, continuing the legacy of Dr. Fairchild and Mrs. Sweeney.

[1] In 1963 when Hawai‘i Senator Daniel Inouye introduced the original bill calling for the U.S. Congress to establish a new botanical garden in Hawai‘i, he had to make a concession to the Florida delegation which did not support the name National Tropical Botanical Garden, the result being the name “Pacific Tropical Botanical Garden” (1964-1988). With the addition of The Kampong, the Garden had a new opportunity to change its name “back” to National Tropical Botanical Garden as intended in the original bill.

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