For Mary Brinegar, 2022 was already a big year. The Dallas Arboretum president and CEO celebrated her 75th birthday October 11. And for her “major birthday,” she announced her retirement.
Brinegar took the helm at the Arboretum in 1996, turning a period of instability in the botanical garden’s leadership. Her background was in fundraising. The Dallas native and SMU grad completed nearly decade-long stints at The Dallas Opera and KERA/Channel 13 before taking the job, but her appointment was the seed the Arboretum needed.
In the 26 years since, Brinegar has overseen the development of 60 percent of the Arboretum’s property surrounding White Rock Lake. She’s expanded the garden’s calendar of activities and festivals, including the beloved 12 Days of Christmas and the annual Autumn at the Arboretum.
She’s overseen the building of numerous additions to the Arboretum, including A Tasteful Place, the Margaret and Jay Simmons Lagoon and gardens, and Linda’s Pocket Garden. She’s tended to renovations of the Palmer Fern Dell, the Rose Mary Haggar Rose Garden, and more.
Brinegar has had a huge impact on the quality of the garden, Dallas Arboretum Board Chairman Jim Ryan tells D Magazine. “It’s amazing every time I go out there.” One of her biggest legacies, he says, is the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden, which opened in 2013. The $62 million project involved a major fundraising effort and “is a great place for children to learn more about science and nature.”
Despite today’s announcement, Ryan says this decision “was a long time coming and it didn’t come as a surprise.” In 2019, Brinegar let the Arboretum’s board know she planned to retire in about 18 months. Then COVID-19 hit, and she extended her tenure through the pandemic. Brinegar will officially retire in 2023 after 27 years once a special committee has selected her successor.
Ryan says the board of directors is currently assembling the committee that will lead the search. Vice Chairman Will McDaniel, who will take over for Ryan as chair, will lead the nationwide hunt. The first step will be to “agree on a job description for her successor,” Ryan says, as Brinegar manages the gardens’ operations and is heavily involved in fundraising and development, a reflection of a specialized skillset. Then they will start to look for candidates both locally and across the country who have nonprofit experience.
“We’re gonna look for someone with experience energy and a track record of managing a large nonprofit organization,” Ryan says.
Whoever is chosen, though, they’ll have big shoes to fill. Brinegar will leave the Arboretum in a strong position, Ryan says. “There will be additional gardens to be to be built and additional opportunities to grow the education and research areas. It’s difficult to predict where it will [end up], but I think it’ll be very similar to what it is now: a beautiful, excellent garden.”