One might say that Mary Brinegar’s life is all about roots. In addition to serving as the CEO/president of the Dallas Arboretum, where she’s seen roots take hold to produce acres of magnificence, her own life has roots that span generations of community involvement.
Her great-grandfather William Stiles was one of the founders of SMU; her grandfather R.L. Thornton was among other things mayor of Dallas from 1952 to 1961 and president of the State Fair of Texas for 18 years; and her grandmother Mary Metta Thornton, after whom Mary was named, was a Red Cross board member and chairman during World War II and a leading force at Highland Park United Methodist Church, the Dallas Woman’s Club, Dallas Symphony League, Metropolitan Opera Guild, the Dallas Historical Society and Daughters of the American Revolution.
With that kind of gene pool, it’s no wonder that, growing up in Lakewood, Mary would follow a road of community involvement for the betterment of Dallas.
After graduating from SMU in 1969 with a degree in elementary education, Mary found her calling in North Texas’ non-profit world, including with Children’s Medical Center Dallas, KERA/CH. 13 and the Dallas Opera, before planting her career at the Arboretum in 1996.
It was a questionable decision, since the Arboretum had “cycled through four of her predecessors in 12 years.” And while Mary’s gardening skills weren’t up to the masters level, her fundraising experience, non-profit management skills and networking abilities were all ripe for the Arboretum’s future.
And what a future it turned out to be. Since taking over the Arboretum, Mary grew the budget from $3M to today’s current budget of $26M and made the garden a year-round attraction. There was Dallas Blooms, Autumn at the Arboretum and The 12 Days of Christmas, as well as the unique attractions like the Dale Chihuly exhibition in 2012 that resulted in attendance reaching a million visitors.
In addition to the unique activities, Mary oversaw the development of 60% of the grounds and reworked the original gardens. Structural changes included the building of the Trammell Crow Visitor Education Pavilion; the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden; A Tasteful Place complex with the Test Pavilion; the Margaret and Jay Simmons Lagoon and gardens; the Boswell Family Garden; the McCasland Sunken Garden; the Richard L. Grant Octagonal Fountain Garden; the Nancy Clements Seay Magnolia Glade; the Henry Lindsley Shadow Garden; the Jan and Richard McMillan Fountain Renovation; the Nancy Rutchik Red Maple Rill and the Martin Rutchik Concert Stage and Lawn; the Jeanne L. Johnson Pavilion; the Tres Amigas garden; the Martha Brooks Camellia Garden; and Linda’s Pocket Garden.
The changes didn’t go unnoticed. MSNBC listed the Arboretum as one of the “10 thing you should do in America in the spring.” According to Trip Advisor, the Arboretum has been listed as “Dallas’ number one entertainment activities” for four years. And the American Public Garden Association honored the Arboretum with its prestigious Program Excellence Award.
In recognition of her dedication and foresight in growing the Arboretum, Mary has been honored with the SMU Distinguished Alumni Award; the Virginia Chandler Dykes Award from Texas Woman’s University; The Dallas Historical Society Award for Excellence in the Arts; Honorary Membership in the American Association of Architects in Dallas and later in the State Association; Kappa Alpha Theta of the Year; Junior League Sustainer of the Year; Hall of Fame Award from Woodrow Wilson High School; 100 Women in 100 Years; and Selfless Women to Remember: An Exhibition of Portraits by Gittings.
Now, having made improvements worth more than $100M and weathering everything from droughts and ice storms to a global pandemic, Mary is celebrating her 75th birthday today by announcing her retirement next year. While a search committee is created, Mary will stay on board to assist in the transition.
According to Arboretum Board Chair Jim Ryan, “Mary shared with leadership more than two years ago that this was her plan. She stayed through the pandemic and its financial challenges, all the while strengthening her internal team to provide outstanding support for an incoming CEO. I want to thank Mary for her dedication to the Dallas Arboretum and the City of Dallas and for all she’s done over the past 27 years to make the Arboretum the jewel of the city. The entire Board appreciates her vision, her standard of excellence and her attention to detail given to all the work taking place in the garden through these many years. She has given the majority of her work life in service to the Dallas Arboretum, and we are one of the country’s top botanical gardens because of her efforts.”
* Photo provided by Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden