Menke helping keep Hawaii beautiful by picking up trash from the roadside

  • KELSEY WALLING/Tribune-Herald Norman Menke smiles while picking up trash Jan. 13 on a road off South Wilder Road in Hilo. Menke enjoys cleaning the sides of the road and helping keep Hawaii beautiful.

It is not uncommon for motorists to see a bright orange utility cart on either side of the Puainako Street extension. Taking a closer look, drivers can see the cart’s owner, an 86-year-old man cleaning litter from the highway.

Since moving to Hawaii in 2018, Wisconsin native Norman Menke has filled his days with picking up rubbish from the roadside.


His health declining with age, he moved to Hilo to be closer to his son, Ben. Before moving, Norman Menke was used to working on a project every day, so Ben Menke knew he needed to find his father a hobby.

“When he moved here, I realized he would need something to do if I was busy,” said Ben Menke. “Before we found this activity for him, he would always bother me while we were driving and say, ‘Aren’t you going to pick up that trash?’ and I would always pull over and pick it up.”

Norman Menke was floored by the beauty of Hawaii after moving to the Big Island from Wisconsin. At the same time, he was surprised to see so much trash on the side of the roads.

“The first time I picked up trash around here, I got about 50 pounds of stuff,” he said. “I don’t think anyone picked up before I started doing it every day. Now I usually get half a bag of trash every time I come out.”

After seeing that his father clicked with this new hobby, Ben Menke searched for a way to make it easier for his dad. He eventually found the orange utility cart that Norman Menke uses every day.

“I feel really good coming out here, but the thing that holds me back are my legs,” Norman Menke said. “If I go in a ditch, I’ll probably have to stay there.”

Last month, Menke had a couple of falls that impeded his health. While on recovery, Ben Menke is helping his father drive the utility cart and pick up any heavy, hard-to-reach trash.

“It’s a difficult time for him right now and I don’t ever want to take away his freedom if I don’t have to,” Ben Menke said. “I love my dad and I’m glad that we can do this together at least every other day.”

The hobby has led Norman Menke to find some of the most unexpected items while cleaning up the side of the highway.

There have been plenty of refrigerators, furniture, car parts and even a huge icemaker that Ben and Norman Menke had to tear apart and deliver to the Hilo landfill.

Norman Menke also found a bag with a handgun and what appeared to be a stash of drugs inside. After reporting the find to the police, it was discovered the gun was stolen in a 2008 robbery.

“People dump all sorts of things around here,” Norman Menke said. “There are two TVs on the side of the road that I found just a few days ago.”

People who pass by Menke often will stop and hand him money or snacks as a way to say thank you.

“People have given him so much appreciation and he’s even turned down money at times,” Ben Menke said. “He never wanted to do it for money, but it does help with gas sometimes.”

After spending most of his life in Wisconsin, Norman Menke has grown to love his new home and living so close to his son. The duo has been able to spend more time together since Norman Menke is recovering and needs a little extra help.

“I’m glad I can help him with this right now and get out of the house together,” Ben Menke said. “My dad enjoys me being with him all the time.”

Although his health is not where it used to be, Norman Menke does not want to quit anytime soon.


“I’m hoping to get him on his feet so he can have some independence again,” Ben Menke said. “He understands he needs to take it easy, but that doesn’t mean he won’t keep going. Work is all he knows and he loves it.”

Email Kelsey Walling at

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