Q&A: How retiring CEO nurtured growth of Morton Arboretum
Gerard Donnelly found himself in rare company when he left the world of academia for the top job at the Morton Arboretum in 1990.
Only two other directors have held the role in the nearly 100 years since salt magnate Joy Morton established the arboretum on his estate outside Lisle.
But Donnelly is in a class of his own. The arboretum president and CEO will retire in 2022 after more than 30 years in charge -- longer than any of his predecessors -- to spend more time with his wife, Pam, and their family.
Reflecting on his tenure, Donnelly, 66, still sounds like a former botany professor, understated and methodical. "I often think of the legacy of the arboretum rather than my own," he said.
But his influence can be seen in virtually every corner of the 1,700-acre tree museum. With Donnelly at the helm, attendance surged, philanthropic support expanded and artists from Denmark to South Africa brought gigantic sculptures to arboretum grounds.
The Daily Herald recently spoke with Donnelly about his leadership. The following is an edited transcript.
Q. Did you see yourself staying more than 30 years?
A. Well, gosh, I don't know that I knew enough to even think ahead. There was so much on the plate for me as a new young leader for the arboretum. I was 35 years old when I started here, and so it was a big step up to the challenge of managing and leading a significant organization at the time, and we didn't even know what its potential was.
Q. What was the state of the arboretum then?
A. I would say that if you were to have the organization have a personality, it was a little bit reserved and quiet in its character.
Our first major campaign was to reach out to the public audience to be of greater public service and engagement, and we've grown tremendously on that front in our attendance and the visitation and membership and the community support.
Q. In the early 2000s, you oversaw the arboretum's "Branching Out!" capital campaign to build a new visitors center, specialty gardens, a new entrance along Route 53 and an environmentally friendly parking lot. What was the most essential project?
A. They're all of value. Probably the one that had strength as a signal to the community that we were reaching out to a broader public and to be of greater public service was the children's garden. That really was a big change for the organization.
It brought new audiences, but it also really was an investment in encouraging our youngest visitors to enjoy themselves outdoors, to take stock of what was around them, to breathe fresh air and to be outdoors and among trees.
Q. In 1990, around 350,000 people visited the arboretum. Attendance topped 1 million visitors before the pandemic. How were you able to expand the arboretum's audience?
A. Oftentimes it takes something of certain appeal, a new or different offering, and so we've invested in a number of new features at the arboretum like the children's garden and maze garden and the coming new "Grand Garden" (a $15 million project) that we're now developing, which is all part of that enhanced offer to the public audience.
The community has seen that we've done a series of special exhibitions over many years, well before "Troll Hunt" (the installation by Danish artist Thomas Dambo) when we really sparked the interest of so many more people at the arboretum.
Q. You're a trained botanist and forest ecologist, with a Ph.D. from Michigan State. How did you strike the balance between attracting more visitors and staying true to the arboretum's mission?
A. My training in botany and forest ecology didn't prepare me at all to focus on marketing and events, programming and fundraising, but I knew in order to build the capacity for botany and forest ecology and the arboretum science and conservation mission, we really needed to build that public support dimension, and we couldn't do it without it. And so I had to learn a lot.
Q. You're stepping down in September next year, in the midst of the arboretum's centennial celebration. What are your goals for that milestone?
A. We have a multipronged celebration plan, which will launch on Dec. 14 of this year. That'll be the start of the arboretum's 100th year.
And to help celebrate that centennial year, we're mounting a special tree planting initiative, which is, of course, a very natural thing to do for the next century, just as (Morton) did for this past 100 years of benefit.
We are mounting 100 different centennial-themed programs and educational activities over the course of the coming year that really are exciting to staff to be creative and offer those to the public and to the community.
Q. You now live on arboretum grounds. What's your favorite spot?
A. There are many special locations for me, and special trees that I gravitate to, beech trees being one of them. There are certain areas in the East woods, and in our collections. I really love the maple collection and the oaks, in particular, just strolling among these magnificent trees and taking inspiration from that really can center me and inspire us for all the things we're doing around and about them.