In Memoriam: Frank Fujii 1917–2016
In 1967, FRANK FUJII began working for Ganna Walska and launched a career at Lotusland that would span 40 years.
Frank was the son of Japanese parents who settled in Salt Lake City in 1917. Frank’s family moved to Santa Barbara when he was nine years old, and he attended a one-room grammar school on the Mesa followed by Santa Barbara junior and senior high schools. He continued his studies at the State Teachers College, located on the Riviera, taking courses from the renowned nurseryman Peter Riedel. During WWII, Frank and his family were interned at the Gila River camp in Arizona for four years, after which they returned to Santa Barbara, where Frank went to work on the Kemper Williams estate for the next 27 years.
Frank earned his contractor’s license in the 1950s and built a few Japanese-style gardens in the area, among them the Buddhist church on Montecito Street. As a landscape contractor, Frank met stonemason Oswald da Ros, who would later introduce him to Ganna Walska. In 1967, when Madame turned to da Ros to help her build her Japanese garden, Ozzie called upon Frank for his expertise. The three worked together, without a formal plan, building Lotusland’s Japanese garden. Both Frank and Ozzie were very diplomatic when they would talk about the need to make “compromises” based on Madame Walska’s wishes. Frank insisted that simplicity be the basic design element, and this balanced Madame’s tendencies for the dramatic.
According to Frank, “It gives you a feeling when you walk through the garden…of serenity, quietness. Makes you feel you want to meditate.” Frank told colleagues that he was concerned that the garden was not yet finished by the time Madame Walska moved on to her next project. He wanted to complete the design by creating a more traditional, irregular-shaped pond and to include plants to the water’s edge. Frank believed there needed to be a stepping stone path to the koi feeding area and wanted to create closer access to the lotus flowers.
During his four decades at Lotusland, the garden staff knew Frank well, and their memories of him are filled with respect, joy and a deep appreciation for his giving nature. Terri Clay, long-time coworker, spoke about what a “privilege” it was to work alongside Frank for 20 years and how “incredibly lucky she was to have spent so much of her life with someone who only made life better.” Mike Furner, 38-year Lotusland veteran, describes Frank as “a world-class guy.” Mike’s stories include Frank’s famous and un-returnable ping pong shot, the “Fujii-flop,” and he recalls Ganna Walska’s rich resonant operatic voice summoning Frank to the pavilion with “Mr. Fujii…Mr. Fujii…” Mike Iven, (now retired) Director of Grounds for 31 years, once said, “I learned so much from Frank, he was the best teacher I ever had, but I think the most important thing he taught me was how to be a good human being.” The many remembrances of Frank Fujii touch on the themes of “pruning azaleas, the value of humility, enriching lives and remembering his smile and kind spirit.” To everyone who knew and worked with Frank, the consistent thread is abundantly clear: “it was an honor to know and work with Frank Fujii at Lotusland.”
Frank is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy; daughters Roberta Cook (Steve), Melanie Fujii and Doreen Sasaki (Glenn); and granddaughters Allie Ester (Chris) and Morgan Cook (fiancé Jonathan Russell). Frank also leaves behind his younger brother, Robert K. Fujii.