Charlie Turner, a onetime insurance clerk who flourished in his later years as the pruner, planter, irrigator and general caretaker for a famed garden spot atop Griffith Park, died Friday at a Burbank convalescent home. He was 91.
“He was such a gentle man, and he was a friend to anyone who came into the garden. He inspired people, he truly did,” said longtime friend Tom LaBonge.
Turner’s oasis was called Dante’s View, a garden retreat nestled in Griffith Park’s Mt. Hollywood overlooking the downtown skyline from 1,400 feet above sea level.
The British-born Turner began tending the three-acre garden in the 1970s as an assistant to its namesake, artist Dante Orgolini, who had carved the spot out of native chaparral in 1965.
Turner took over as unofficial, volunteer caretaker in 1978 after Orgolini’s death. For the next 15 years, he hiked to the garden virtually every morning to tend the plants, trim the trees, water the soil and erase any graffiti.
Wearing his trademark yellow tennis hat, he would give impromptu tours of the site, offering cookies and slices of history to the many hikers and nature lovers who ventured more than a mile up from the Griffith Observatory trail head that now bears his name.
He earned the nickname “mayor of Griffith Park,” and his birthday parties at Dante’s View became the stuff of lore. He rode a few years ago in a Rose Bowl float patterned after “the urban hiker.” And even after age and arthritis stopped him from hiking the Mt. Hollywood trail at the age of 90, city employees regularly gave him a lift to the garden on fire roads.
“He was the mayor, he oversaw the place,” said park ranger Lloyd Payne, on duty Saturday at Griffith Park. “He had quite a following of people. It was like a family that went up there, and everyone knew him.”
Vicky Lacko became one of Turner’s closest friends over the last decade, as she and her two dogs joined Turner each morning for his daily pilgrimage.
“He’d just stand there and look down on the city and reminisce,” she said. Turner, who never married, “told me one time, ‘the trees are like the children I never had.’ ”
Turner held a series of nondescript jobs through much of his life, working as a cabin boy on steamships out of his hometown of Liverpool as a teenager and then later as a hotel deskman and an insurance clerk in Los Angeles. During World War II, he also served in France with the Canadian military, LaBonge said.
He found his true calling only in later years in his volunteer work at Dante’s View.
In one interview several years ago, he said: “I made more friends here than I previously did in all the rest of my life. . . . I think the garden has a nice way of weeding people. The nice ones stay and the bums and the troublemakers go away.”
But there were darker moments, too, even amid the geraniums, lilies, eucalyptus and jade that made Dante’s View such an inspiring community favorite.
Tumbles on the garden terrace landed Turner in the hospital several times with broken ribs, and a 1990 wildfire that virtually destroyed Dante’s View forced him to flee the mountain. Cobbling together donations and public money, he led the campaign to replant it.
His last visit came just a few weeks ago, said LaBonge, an aide to Mayor Richard Riordan who took over Turner’s garden caretaker duties in 1993.
Turner succumbed to respiratory failure Friday with little apparent pain, LaBonge said.
A memorial service is scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 9 at Dante’s View.