Former McKnight director has mountains to conquer

New adventures Luttge plans lots of hiking, climbing in retirement


Published: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 19, 2004 at 2:48 a.m.
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Dr. William G. Luttge stands in front of the McKnight Brain Institute. Luttge recently retired as executive director of the institute.

Special to the Sun
It was his last official week in his office on the top floor of the McKnight Brain Institute, and Executive Director William G. Luttge was surrounded by piles of files. Piles on the desk. More piles on the window sill.
But Luttge's thoughts were on the adventures ahead, and new mountains to climb. Literally.
The 59-year-old neuroscientist and creative force driving the McKnight Brain Institute is taking time off for some physical challenges.
"As of March 2, I will be hiking the Appalachian Trail, which I plan to finish Aug. 2," Luttge said. "Choosing that trail and that time was intentional, to give me some actual closure from here."
"Here" is the McKnight Brain Institute at the University of Florida, created in 1998 to bring together research scientists, clinicians and educators with a single goal: to solve some of the most complex problems of the brain and central nervous systems, and get those solutions quickly to the people who need them most.
Some 300 experts are focusing on spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer's disease, age-related memory dysfunction, chronic pain, stroke, alcoholism and addiction, and myriad other challenges. Some are located in the MBI building, while others are scattered across campus - engineering, health sciences, liberal arts and more - linked by the problems they tackle.
Luttge has been at the helm from the beginning, and as he packs and sorts, he says he's pleased at where the institute finds itself today.
"I strongly believe that if UF wants to reach its stated goal of being in the Top 10 of public universities in research, having the university work as a whole is the way to achieve it," Luttge said.
"We are geographically isolated here in Gainesville, without a lot of the industries which offer easy partnerships with corporations, so to some degree, we at the university have to work together," he added.
"I am very pleased that this institute has shown that it is possible."
A beginning Luttge was certainly in at the beginning, and counts the day when it was announced that UF had won an $18 million Department of Defense grant to build a major brain and spinal injury center as among the best of his professional life.
Just six months earlier, he had spotted a small ad announcing the competitive grant in an obscure newsletter, Commerce Business Daily. He and his wife Michaelyn worked day and night to assemble the grant proposal, sleeping on the office couch or curled up under a conference table.
That grant was one of the cornerstones of the institute. A $15 million gift from McKnight Brain Research Foundation for fundamental research exploring the mechanisms of memory loss with aging was another. It remains the largest single private donation in UF's history.
Dr. Douglas Barrett, UF's vice president for health affairs, said he marvels at Luttge's single-minded dedication which allowed him to pull together both the DOD grant proposal and the disparate pieces that are now the MBI.
"It's true there were lots of patchwork pieces of the quilt, but Bill had the dream of sewing it all together and making it a coherent picture," Barrett said.
"No one but Bill could have done that because of his view of the neurosciences at the University of Florida. It was a remarkable personal effort."
Luttge said a 25-member search committee is now meeting to choose his successor. He and Michaelyn plan to continue living in the area, but he says he has no intentions of going out and looking for another job.
He has other challenges in mind. Trails ahead First will be hiking the Appalachian Trail. Then he and his wife will do a 270-mile trail in Vermont.
Then he'll hike two trails of more than 3,000 miles each running from Mexico to Canada - the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide.
"I like the physical activity of hiking, and most of my retirement plans are very active, because I want to do it while I can," he said. "When I am 70 or 80, I don't want to wish I had done what I wanted to in life."
Those who wish to keep up with him vicariously can do so at luttge.com, a currently empty Web domain that Luttge plans to fill with images from his wilderness adventures.
And there's a mountain in his future - Alaska's Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.
"Last year, I took a week of expedition training and climbed Mount Rainier. The first time you do anything like that, going off the side of an ice crevasse on a rope, it can be pretty unnerving," he said. "But now I plan to do a lot more of it."
Ron Hayes, a neuroscientist at the College of Medicine and director of the Center for Traumatic Brain Injury Studies, hiked the Wonderland Trail around Washington state's Mount Rainier with Luttge.
"Climbing is a metaphor for Bill," Hayes said. "He led, I followed, and I had a heck of a time keeping up with him. He has a wonderful combination of a take-no-prisoners approach to the adventure and the ability to see the beauty of the moment.
"His approach to hiking is very mission-oriented: 'How far are we going to go today?' "Then we would stop to eat blackberries among the bears. Those are moments you never forget in your life."
On retirement Luttge said he thought long and hard about when to retire, and believes he's picked the best time - for himself, and for the brain institute.
"I've always described this institute as an experiment. But the best way to assess if the concept is working, is through a change in leadership," he said.
His successor will face some new competition for grant money with the arrival of Scripps Florida, ambitious new biomedical research facility being started in Palm Beach County with $310 million in government funding.
Luttge asks, so what? "Yes, it will mean competition," he admits. "But it raises the whole national and international view of the state of Florida, and that is good."
Looking ahead to Scripps' arrival, he added, "Scripps is entirely set up to make discoveries and translate those into commercial, money-making products.
"There is nothing wrong with the university's doing the same thing. It's a part of the real world," he added. "It doesn't mean we don't continue to do very basic science, but if it has some application, let's find it."
Glancing about the office, the director said what he'll miss least are the meetings and paperwork.
"What I will miss most is the excitement of building programs and pushing them," he said.
As he turns to new challenges, Luttge said he is satisfied with where the McKnight Brain Institute stands today.
"I hope that people will be pleased that we opened the doors and provided an opportunity for so many new things here," he said. "We've created great expectations, and in achieving those goals, we are constantly raising the bar for everybody else."
Diane Chun can be reached at (352) 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com.

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