February 22, 2024
Dallas Arboretum’s Mary Brinegar thinks it’s time to take off her ‘velvet fist’

Many individuals name the Dallas Arboretum “Mary’s Backyard.”

That’s as a result of Mary Brinegar, president and CEO of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Backyard Society Inc., has spent 27 years elevating greater than $100 million to remodel it from simply one other bucolic picnic spot right into a world-class horticultural vacation spot.

“Fairly frankly, 90% of what’s seen on the backyard was constructed or restored below her watch,” stated retired banker Bob Thornton, who was the aboretum’s chairman when Brinegar was employed in 1996. “I name Mary the ‘Velvet fist.’ She will smile so sweetly and be so good. However she is metal. She will get it completed. There’s not one factor ‘fluffy’ about her.”

That’s been important, Thornton says, as a result of there are such a lot of shifting elements to the 66 acres alongside White Rock Lake together with climate that may’t be managed. “There’s at all times a difficulty, at all times an issue, at all times a dragon that must be slayed. It’s a must to keep on high of all of it to deal with it. And he or she does.”

Brinegar is prepared for another person to be the dragon slayer.

“Whenever you’re trying on the milestone of turning 75, you assume. ‘Oh my gosh. How for much longer do I keep?’ ” she stated.

Having hit that milestone in October, Brinegar says she’s completed greater than she ever dreamed.

As a substitute of Dallas Blooms being the arboretum’s do-or-die competition, the backyard holds year-round festivals and occasions that assist draw one million new and returning guests every year.

When Brinegar confirmed up, there have been about 2,000 members. Immediately there are 46,245 supporters, together with 500 who give $3,500 to $50,000 a yr. The most well-liked degree is the $151 household membership.

Dallas Arboretum’s Mary Brinegar thinks it’s time to take off her ‘velvet fist’
The Kids’s Christmas Village on the Dallas Arboretum in Dallas on Dec. 29.(Lola Gomez / Employees Photographer)

Brinegar remembers when kids had been taught nature and science below bushes. Now there’s the Rory Meyers Kids’s Journey Backyard, the place almost one million kindergarten by way of Sixth-grade college students have come to work together because it opened in 2013.

Brinegar says she’s not Sort A aggressive, however she is deadline oriented. “I understand how a lot I’ve to usher in by a sure date. I do know what I’ve to do to fulfill the deadline. I imply, I’m on it,” she stated. “However I’m motivated by worry of not making the purpose.”

She had deliberate to retire in 2020 however stayed on due to the monetary helter-skelter created by the pandemic.

Then got here final yr’s lethal winter storm.

“It regarded like [Gone with the Wind’s] Tara after the conflict,” she stated. “There have been lifeless crops in all places.”

It price greater than $500,000 to wash up and replant. “Grand previous azaleas that had been with us for years couldn’t make it,” she stated. “Insurance coverage doesn’t cowl something that grows.”

This summer season’s warmth wave price the arboretum $400,000 in gate gross sales.

Even so, the arboretum completed the yr within the black for the twenty ninth consecutive yr and maintained its million-visitor standing.

Brinegar will flip over stewardship as quickly as her substitute is employed and introduced up to the mark.

Dave Firehand left Disney World in Orlando 22 years in the past to move up Brinegar’s horticultural staff. He says he’s by no means had a second of remorse.

“She’s completely my boss,” he stated. “However she completely trusts us to carry out and do nice work. That’s strain, but it surely’s good strain. She has such religion in her folks to do good issues that you just actually attempt to step up and make that mark.”

Deep Dallas roots

So how did Brinegar grow to be the queen bee of the arboretum?

It actually wasn’t her horticultural information or gardening expertise.

Her yardman, Ruben Cardoza, stored her Preston Hole garden and flower beds tidy however actually not Residence & Backyard worthy. “After I got here house after I discovered that I’d gotten the job, I stated, ‘Ruben, we’re in hassle.’ “

She moved to a high-rise just a few years later as a result of folks stored desirous to take footage of her yard. “An excessive amount of strain there,” she stated.

Brinegar grew up on Lakewood Boulevard, the eldest of three women and a boy born to a distinguished Dallas household.

Her nice grandfather, William Stiles, was a founding father of Southern Methodist College. Her father, Frank Brinegar, had profitable property and casualty insurance coverage and actual property corporations. Her mom, Rosemary Thornton Brinegar, was the daughter of four-term Dallas mayor R.L. Thornton and the namesake of the town’s freeway.

Mary went to Dallas public colleges, graduating from Woodrow Wilson Excessive College in East Dallas in 1965, and obtained her diploma in elementary training from SMU 4 years later.

“We had a motto from my grandfather: ‘Work arduous. Do proper. Give again,’” she stated. “I by no means needed to commerce on my identify, relatively preferring simply to be identified for the individual I’m.”

‘Reply the rattling telephones’

That’s one motive Brinegar, who was fortunately ensconced because the second in command to former basic director Plato Karayanis on the Dallas Opera, turned down quite a few probabilities to interview for the arboretum job when a headhunter stored calling.

Bob Thornton is her cousin, and he or she didn’t need anybody to assume that she wanted household connections to land a job.

Thornton recused himself from the hiring course of. “Due to this fact, nobody might come again later and say that it was a stacked deck,” the retired vice chairman JPMorgan Chase-Dallas stated.

On Brinegar’s first day on the job, she referred to as her cousin and advised him she by no means needed to be handled in a different way from some other worker.

Thornton advised her to recover from it and gave her three duties to be mounted by the top of the week.

His high precedence?

“Get somebody to reply the rattling telephones,” Thornton recalled.

A receptionist dealt with all incoming calls, and when she was overwhelmed or wanted a break, she merely turned off the cellphone strains.

It was a straightforward repair.

Neither Thornton nor Brinegar remembers what her second and third fast hits had been.

However the board’s long-term priorities had been clear. The arboretum had run by way of 4 presidents in 12 years and needed somebody to get a grip on weak funds.

On the high of the whiteboard diagram was “diversify earnings streams,” remembers then-board member Norm Bagwell, chairman of Financial institution of Texas, who at present heads the arboretum’s CEO council.

On the time, Dallas Blooms accounted for 70% of the arboretum’s $3 million working finances. If it rained through the spring competition and other people didn’t present up, the backyard had hassle making payroll and paying payments for the remainder of the yr.

This yr’s upcoming Dallas Blooms is predicted to usher in about 6% of the $28 million the arboretum will spend in 2023.

The Dallas Arboretum entrance.
The Dallas Arboretum entrance.(Lola Gomez / Employees Photographer)

The remainder will come from expanded venues, extra summer season, fall and vacation festivals, 5 public occasions, training courses, pictures, leases and group gross sales. It has additionally offered the naming rights for nearly all the pieces she might consider however restrooms and parking tons.

Over time, Ann Stuart, retired chancellor of Texas Lady’s College, has donated almost $750,000 for numerous initiatives. “Mary asks, and also you don’t say no,” Stuart stated. “What you select to assist is at all times executed to the very best customary. She is the most effective.”

Main from the trenches

Brinegar will get down into the weeds wherever further palms are wanted, stated vice chairman Terry Lendecker. “She by no means asks her staff to do something that she is just not keen to do herself. She’s down within the trenches with us.”

She has sealed huge donor offers on golf carts, sped up valet service by shuttling automotive parkers to retrieve vehicles and bussed tables throughout a restaurant staffing disaster.

“She reads each single touch upon the every day visitor surveys, solutions each single cellphone name and e mail and, too usually, takes issues to coronary heart,” Lendecker stated. “With that stated, that’s what has made the arboretum what it’s right now.”

Karen Reardon, a longtime good friend who has labored for Brinegar for nearly 20 years, agrees. “Mary could be very calm and calls for 100% of workers with velvet gloves and a delicate voice. She will go to lunch with a donor and are available again to the workplace with a test for one million {dollars}. She is aware of everybody in Dallas, and so they all love her.”

However not everybody feels beloved.

Three former workers have pending complaints with the town of Dallas and the U.S. Equal Employment Alternative Fee alleging that they had been unjustly fired by the arboretum — one for being homosexual, one other for utilizing gender-inclusive pronouns and a 3rd for discrimination.

Lendecker says the arboretum “has submitted place statements requested by the EEOC and totally cooperated with all investigations. We’re simply awaiting EEOC determinations.”

Brinegar says the fits have “completely nothing” to do with the timing of her retirement and that she was surprised by them, having been a proponent of variety and inclusion packages since her days on the opera within the ‘90s.

She was the driving power behind the arboretum’s Hispanic Heritage Celebration in September, which leads into Black Heritage Celebration, adopted by Satisfaction in Bloom.

“I sit up for having all of this behind us,” she stated.

Drunk raccoons, loud peacocks

Brinegar is called a raconteur — the gal everybody needs to take a seat with at social occasions.

The arboretum has given her loads of materials.

Amongst her favourite tales?

One summer season, the arboretum handed out slices of watermelon that dripped on folks’s garments and attracted bees. Children spilled sticky watermelon juice all around the walkways, making a clean-up mess and attracting critters at night time.

On a couple of event, raccoons raided trash baggage, acquired drunk on the alcohol leftovers from events and wandered across the grounds in a stupor.

“Individuals thought they should be diseased. I stated, ‘Oh no, they’ve simply had their very own comfortable hour.’ “

There was additionally the case of the screeching peacocks.

The horticulture workers purchased a peacock female and male on the Canton flea market. However as quickly as they had been launched within the backyard, they flew north, by no means to be seen once more. Not less than not by the parents on the arboretum.

Three years later, the arboretum acquired a cellphone name from somebody within the neighborhood saying that the peacocks’ screeching might wake the lifeless and so they wanted to be eliminated.

The birds had been secretly residing in a giant bamboo stand on the fringe of the arboretum property. They’d fly into the neighborhood, make their presence identified after which settle again into the bamboo at night time.

An arboretum staffer added the aviary interlopers to his animal menagerie at his giant farm.

When folks ask Paul Redman, CEO of the celebrated Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania, to checklist the highest public gardens in North America, the Dallas Arboretum at all times makes his checklist.

“Mary’s management is a beacon of inspiration and affect for our occupation,” he stated, including aspiring botanical leaders from all over the world will undoubtedly apply to exchange her as CEO.

“I’ve little question, due to her love for the backyard, that she, in partnership with the backyard’s board, will do all the pieces inside their energy to be sure that whoever is the subsequent chief is about up for achievement.”

The Children’s Christmas Village at the arboretum.
The Kids’s Christmas Village on the arboretum.(Lola Gomez / Employees Photographer)

Discovering the ‘subsequent Mary’

Brinegar is staying out of the method.

“I’ve such respect for therefore many nonprofit leaders in Dallas,” Brinegar stated. “I do know the administrators of all the key gardens within the nation. I don’t need to be lobbied, however extra importantly, I don’t need to choose one from the most effective. So I’m simply sitting on the sidelines.”

The “subsequent Mary” must navigate the pursuits of the board, donors, guests, workers, volunteers and neighbors.

Above all else, these interviewed agreed, her successor should share her ardour for the arboretum and its mission.

Dallas banker and arboretum board member Will McDaniel is heading the interior search staff that’s hiring a headhunter to fill the CEO slot.

“Mary has taken the grasp plan, labored with many boards of administrators through the years and helped implement that plan with grace and willpower,” stated McDaniel, senior vice chairman of Financial institution of America. “Our subsequent chief must have the imaginative and prescient to take this backyard to the subsequent degree whereas preserving its historical past and sustaining excellence in horticulture and festivals.”

In keeping with the nonprofit’s newest obtainable Type 990 tax filings, Brinegar earned $450,000 in 2020. McDaniel says it’s too early to present a wage vary for her substitute.

“I’m glad that the highlight is shining on Mary for all that she’s completed,” Thornton stated. “What folks have problem understanding is that this beautiful, great backyard is right here on the North Texas prairie the place they didn’t even have bushes, flowers or something.”

Brinegar says that she’s no one-woman band. She’s had an orchestra at her disposal. And that’s one thing that can assist whoever steps in.

“If I didn’t have folks to dream with me, to assist us elevate the cash for issues to occur, for the donors who believed within the dream and other people serving to us monitor each building challenge to ensure we obtained the service and high quality the backyard deserves, we might have by no means gotten many of those initiatives off the bottom,” Brinegar stated, after which takes a breath. “Wow! What a sentence!

“What has made the backyard nice? We’ve tried new issues, constructed new displays and constructions — that make us distinctive — and introduced folks to the backyard to see the most effective in horticulture, the explanation for our existence.”

AT A GLANCE: The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Backyard

Opened: 1984

Possession: Public/non-public partnership. Town of Dallas owns the property and is supported by the Dallas Park and Recreation Division. It’s operated by the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Society Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit group.

Annual finances: $28 million, and the arboretum has operated within the black for 29 consecutive years.

2022 guests: 1 million

Workforce: 174 full-time workers, greater than 50 part-time workers and almost 3,000 volunteers

Members: 46,245

Location: The arboretum is on 66 acres of the historic DeGolyer and the Alex Camp Home estates alongside White Rock Lake. The deal with is 8525 Garland Street, Dallas, TX 75218.

Admission: $5 for January-Feb. 24. Competition pricing for Dallas Blooms: $20 for adults, $16 for seniors 65 and up and $12 for kids 2 to 12. Kids 2 years and below are free.

2023 festivals and main occasions: Dallas Blooms: Feb. 25-April 16; Summer time on the Arboretum, June 3-Aug. 6; Cool Thursdays Live performance Sequence, April-June and September-October; Autumn on the Arboretum, Sept. 16-Nov. 5: Vacation on the Arboretum and Christmas Village, Nov. 9-Dec. 31

SOURCE: Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Backyard

Mary Brinegar, president and CEO of the Dallas Arboretum, is stepping down from her post...
Mary Brinegar, president and CEO of the Dallas Arboretum, is stepping down from her publish after 27 years.(Ben Torres / Particular Contributor)

AT A GLANCE: Mary Brinegar

Title: President, CEO, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Backyard

Age: 75

Born: Baylor College Hospital in Dallas

Grew up: Lakewood

Training: Woodrow Wilson Excessive College, 1965; Southern Methodist College, bachelor of arts diploma in elementary training, 1969

Earlier expertise: KERA/Channel 13 and the Dallas Opera for 9 years every

Private: Single

SOURCES: Mary Brinegar; Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Backyard