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The $20-million woman: How Dallas Arboretum CEO Mary Brinegar turned the gardens to gold

Mary Brinegar’s office overlooks an expanse of lush, green grass near the shore of White Rock Lake. In the distance, downtown Dallas skyscrapers rise like stalks growing toward the sun. It’s a space fitting the president and CEO of the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden. When she accepted the position in 1996, the Lakewood native lacked experience in botany and business. But the Arboretum had cycled through four of her predecessors in 12 years, so the time seemed ripe for change. Brinegar’s background in fundraising and nonprofit management was exactly what the Arboretum needed to blossom. In 23 years at the position, she grew the budget from $3 million to more than $22 million and made the garden a year-round attraction that draws visitors from across Dallas and surrounding states.

Arboretum President and CEO Mary Brinegar poses in front of a garden.

Photography by Danny Fulgencio.

What’s your favorite memory of the Arboretum?

It’s the same thing so many times. It’s when I’ve done a tour, and they’ll grasp my hand and say, “This is the best day I’ve had in years.” You can’t trade that. It wasn’t my skill in giving the tour. It was nature. It was incredible beauty. It seems like everybody has some memory here. It could be when someone proposed to you, or it could be when you had a really good talk with someone when you were walking. We’re part of the community.

Do you have a favorite spot?

For years, it used to be the Palmer Fern Dell, but now I love the Three Sisters Lagoon Overlook. It’s part of A Tasteful Place.

The number of female CEOs is small. Have you experienced gender discrimination?

I really haven’t. I think nonprofits started accepting women in the CEO position a lot earlier than Fortune 500 corporations. But I’ve seen (discrimination) in other corporations all the time. People can’t move ahead just because they’re women. It breaks my heart. Here, I have a lot of women in management. Men too. We just don’t even think about it, and I love that. 

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part is when I drive away, I think of something else I wish I’d gotten done that day. There’s something I’ll see that needs repaired. I’m worried all the time about preventative maintenance. If we don’t paint regularly or spray for termites, something terrible could happen to the properties. It’s like the hood under your car. You have to take care of it, but it’s not glamorous. I want people in the city to be proud of the Arboretum.

How do you manage work-life balance?

When you’ve been in any role for a period of time, you learn how to balance your day. You learn how to place things on your calendar. You can’t have back-to-back meetings. You have to have time to return calls or prepare for the next meeting. If you schedule too much in one day, you’ll go crazy. You have to have time to do the work. If you don’t have time, you have to drag it home. I still take things home every now and then, but not like I did when I first came.

How do you relax?

I don’t think I relax very well. I travel. I play cards. I love to have people around me. I go out to dinner with friends — but not to the fanciest restaurants in town, the ones where we can have longer visits. I love little day trips. I want to see the painted churches in south Texas. I always have four or five dreams ahead of me. I don’t think of myself as the age I am. I always think I’m 20 years younger. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I never in my life would have thought in high school that I would run a botanic garden. It’s important to do things you enjoy. Follow your heart and your interests. Make sure you know who you are and what you need to fulfill your day. You want to be stimulated, and you want to keep growing and stretch. Then follow that road when different opportunities come along. There were a lot of jobs I didn’t take because I was happy where I was. 

What do you love about the neighborhood?

Oh, it would have to be the Arboretum. But, you know, there’s a beautiful, calm way in the neighborhood. I grew up in Lakewood. I went to Lakewood Elementary, Long and Woodrow. We knew everybody on our block. They all raised us. Now I’m in a high-rise in Uptown because I don’t need a garden anymore.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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By |2019-06-21T11:27:35-05:00June 18th, 2019|All Magazine Articles, Dallas Arboretum|0 Comments

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