A Generous County
A Generous Country
The phone call surprised, delighted and terrified me all at once. At the other end of the line was George Vestal, then president of the Dunn Gardens Board. The year was 2013.
“Would you,” George asked me, “consider becoming the executive director at the garden?” In my confusion all I could think to blurt out was that my husband and I had a sabbatical planned in 2014, a six-month venture organized so we could be in Seattle for the summer.
“We can manage that,” George soothed. “Just work when you are in town.”
I had been associated with Dunn Gardens as a docent since I moved to Seattle in 2006 so it wasn’t as if George had stabbed my name out of a phone book. But all the same.
“Fancy, I am 65 years old and someone wants to employ me,” I exclaimed to my husband when I shut my phone down. “Trouble is, I don’t know where to start.”
“You’ll figure it out,” he said with more faith in me than I had in myself.
Prior to becoming director I was a retired education professor who loved to read to kids. My then connection with the nonprofit world was best described as a mere donor. As a consequence, when I started work I was as confused as Lucy stepping from the wardrobe into Narnia. Happily, I found the nonprofit country I have travelled about in for the last five years easy to embrace. But all journeys terminate at some point and mine will in December. So, I am now participating in the standard ritual of those leaving valued posts and experiences—indulging in a spot of reflection on my tenure. There are highpoints but what consistently captivated me and fueled my endeavors was what happens in the garden itself.
To begin with the obvious; folks drawn to support a garden, share the same passions. In the case of dirt-in-the nails gardeners who visit the Dunn on tours, wanders and events, this translates into endless conversations about gardening and plants. And, as a committed home gardener myself I find they never get boring. Ever. Occasionally, something quite lovely and unexpected happens to thicken further this easy camaraderie. The perspiring South African couple I took home on impulse after a garden tour is an example. Over beers and lunch we chatted about all matters, but mostly gardens. They returned the hospitality when I visited South Africa the following year and we simply carried on the conversation.
My favorite part of being the director is wondering what may show up. One day eight raptors appeared on Ed’s Lawn as part of a photo shoot. The birds looked through their lidded eyes, as disdainful of us from their perches as we were in awe of their grandeur. Every so often birders show up clutching binoculars and searching for a particular owl that has settled in for the season. Their grins when they successfully locate the critter could light up the city.
A set of five sparkling vintage cars, dating from 1904 to 1936 added to our centennial celebrations in 2015. The autos sat about on the lawn creating oohs and atmosphere.
Periodically, I have been called to lead an unexpected tour. The group of five old ladies I didn’t really have the time for that day is now the one tour I remember most vividly. So vividly I blogged about the experience. The women ambled, apologizing for their inability to move faster, recalling their childhoods by the smell of the blooms we passed. They ended their trip in immense contentment. So did I.
Since I started out my working life as a first grade teacher the kids who come to the garden particularly engage me. I do love to see them throw their arms back and run the length of the Great Lawn and then turn around to do it again. And again. It is a pleasant way to get out the ‘ya-yas’ before sitting down to watch a play performed by Theater Schmeater. (Recommend you put a circle around the last Sunday in July so you can see the 2019 play and do some kid or grandchild watching yourself.)
My job has periodically brought me into contact with personnel of other nonprofits. Uniformly, their passion for the work they are doing is of the animating kind. Listening to people talk about their contribution to making the world work for everyone is a comforting experience; an antidote to any glumness that ails you.
Last, I have always been impressed by the generosity of folks who support the garden. If I am really truthful, I have to say I’m grateful for anyone who gives to environmental causes since they received only 3% of the giving pie. In 2016 that pie totaled a hefty $390 billion. (Source: Giving USA) But, as noted, I am most grateful of all for the Dunn donors since they help a matchless green space in a busy city thrive, not to mention preserve a piece of Pacific Northwest history as well. And when you are 70 you wish, profoundly, for such places to be around for your grandchildren to enjoy.
Five years of such riches will be hard to give up. I will miss the energy of the job in my next life phase along with the privilege of having the garden as my personal counselor when vexed. Couldn’t figure out a way forward, stiff from sitting too long, worried about a personal matter: I took a wander with my camera and discovered the great generosity of the garden. I always arrived back to my seat soothed and knowing why visitors leave contented.
So, now it is time to go back to reading to kids. But, my future will also include some continued association with the garden—why would I give up the garden as counselor? Working on behalf of the Dunn Gardens legacy has been an unexpected and great honor and I thank those who have made the venture worthwhile and such a pleasure.