Earl Bakken at 90: Still turning dreams into reality to help humanity

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Earl Bakken sits in a room filled with awards for his achievements, just a fraction of the awards he has been given. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Earl Bakken sits in a room filled with awards for his achievements, just a fraction of the awards he has been given. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Earl Bakken’s property is wheelchair accessible, allowing him to explore the grounds, which have been planted with thousands of trees and other tropical vegetation. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Earl Bakken sits in his home office on the Kohala coast.
Earl Bakken starts every morning outdoors, where he can enjoy the tropical garden that surrounds his home. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Co-founder and former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, Inc., Earl Bakken, points to a display of implantable pacemakers and visions for the future of the device. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Retired, but still very active in his endeavors to help others, Earl Bakken reviews goals and accomplishments in his home office. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)
Earl Bakken, co-founder and former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, Inc., starts each morning on a patio overlooking the tropical garden planted around his home. (PHOTO BY ANNA PACHECO| SPECIAL TO NHN)

Although he is nearing the end of his ninth decade, at a time when society might expect a man to be slowing down and reminiscing about his own history, Earl Bakken doesn’t look back very much at all. When asked to reflect on his life’s work, he sums up the accomplishments of his billion-dollar medical devices company and his shelves brimming with honors and awards with the simple summation, “It’s gone pretty well. I’ve done quite a bit.”

It’s clear that Bakken’s focus is always on the future and firmly aligned with the first words of his company’s mission statement initially penned 50 years ago, “To contribute to human welfare …”

Best known for pioneering the design and manufacture of heart pacemakers, Bakken’s company, Medtronic, has grown from an electronics shop in a garage in Minneapolis to a global medical technology company that improves the lives of more than 9 million people each year.

When he retired from the business in 1989 at age 65 — an age limit written into the Medtronic business plan when he was just 25 — he and his wife Doris set off to find the retirement locale of their dreams. They visited islands all over the world, from Bora Bora to the Canary Islands to the Caribbean. In every location, they found palm trees and sandy beaches, but not the kind of place that felt like home, until they arrived in Hawaii.

“People here are different,” said Bakken. They were willing to share their personal histories, the history of their island home, and to become true friends, he said.

“In Hawaii, if you love the people, they will love you back. If you lose their trust, it will be gone forever,” he said.

The Bakkens bought three acres of land at Kiholo Bay and built a huge house — 17,000 square feet — designed by local architect Clem Lam, installed an off-the-grid electric generator, a reverse-osmosis system for fresh water, and planted 1,250 trees.

Reaching Higher

How did Bakken evolve from a millionaire businessman seeking a tropical retirement to one of the leaders of a health revolution in North Hawaii?

“I dream what I want to do, then I go do it,” said Bakken, who spends time every morning facing the rising sun on the lanai of his Kiholo home, deep in meditation.

His commitment to improving the health of Hawaii Island residents can be traced back to an invitation to a community meeting led by visionary Hawaiian leader Kenny Brown soon after he arrived on Hawaii Island, and to his own inner restlessness.

“When I retired here, I thought I was going to walk the beach and sit in the hammock all day. Instead, I was nervous. I felt lost. Something wasn’t right,” he said.

That pivotal meeting was about exploring options to improve the health and education of people in the North Hawaii community, who at the time were dealing with not only an economic crisis, but also intolerably high rates of diabetes, heart disease, domestic abuse, and drug addiction. Bakken sat in on the meeting as an observer, but left with a personal calling to improve the wellness of the people of his new home in northwest Hawaii Island.

“But how am I, a Mainland haole, going to help these people?” he wondered.

By listening to and learning from Hawaiian spiritual leaders, especially “Papa” Henry Auwae, a traditional herbal healer, Bakken learned that Hawaiian culture viewed wellness as “20 percent science and 80 percent spirituality.” He fully embraced this philosophy, and let it guide him in his leadership roles over the ensuing years: in creating Tutu’s House as a community wellness resource center, building North Hawaii Community Hospital as a model of integrative healing, and in supporting educational programs through Earl’s Garage, The Kohala Center and Na Kalai Waa.

Transforming imagination into creation

“Ready. Fire. Aim.” Those three familiar commands in scrambled order signify Bakken’s bold vision for innovation. If you spend too much time in the “aiming” step before you “fire,” or act, you won’t get anything accomplished, he said.

“I want our youth to be imaginative and inventive, and our leaders to be ambitious and creative,” he wrote in a 2008 brochure entitled “Inspired.”

To illustrate the story of following his dreams and to inspire innovative thinking in both young and old, Bakken has created a colorful flier called “Dreaming On” that lists 70 of his dreams, from his first at 9 years old — inspired by the movie Frankenstein — to restore life by the use of electricity, to his ongoing vision to eliminate Hawaii Island’s dependence on fossil fuels for electricity.

Of the 70 dreams described in the flier, there are 13 that are listed as either “in progress” or “not done,” and most of these involve his dreams for Hawaii Island as a healthier place for people to live. Clearly, he still has work to do.

A promising future for North Hawaii health care

North Hawaii Community Hospital was envisioned as a place where affordable health care would meet alternative healing practices — acupuncture, prayer, massage therapy, healing touch — in an environment of aloha and respect for the patient. Bakken believes that original vision has become clouded over the years, and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of past hospital administrators.

Even though North Hawaii Community Hospital is “rated the number one healing hospital in the state,” there is still much work to be done to bring it back in line with its original mission, vision, and values, said Bakken. What’s on the top of his list of recommendations? Hire a woman to lead.

“Women are taking over the world, and that is a good thing. Men can’t do the things that women can do. If we had a woman president, and half the Congress was women, our country would be in better shape,” said Bakken.

Ask anyone who has worked with Bakken, and they will likely describe this quiet, humble man as a visionary leader. Susan Pueschel, the development director for North Hawaii Community Hospital, described Bakken in her “afterward” to his autobiography, “One Man’s Life,” published in 1999.

“I have had the incredible opportunity to work closely with Earl, to hear firsthand the stories of his life’s work and his life’s passions, and to witness his uncanny ability to see far beyond tomorrow. Yet Bakken doesn’t suffer from farsightedness. He sees the innate goodness within all people, and rarely do they prove him wrong,” she wrote.

To learn more about the organizations that Earl Bakken supports in North Hawaii, to send him a birthday wish, or to donate to one of his charities, visit www.earlbakken.com. Tutu’s House in Waimea will celebrate Bakken’s 90th birthday with a party from 3 to 5 p.m., on Wednesday, Jan. 8, in their Green Room. All are welcome. For more information, call Tutu’s House at 885-6777.