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Head of Morris Arboretum retiring after more than 42 years, a rare tenure in botanical world

The horticulturalist will leave behind the place he has called home (he has lived on the property from Day One, as well) with a healthy endowment and world-class gardens — due in large part to his stewardship.

Paul Meyer in the conservatory at Morris Arboretum, where he will retire after more than 40 years there.
Paul Meyer in the conservatory at Morris Arboretum, where he will retire after more than 40 years there.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

In the summer of 1976, when Paul W. Meyer arrived at Morris Arboretum fresh off a master’s in plant sciences, his goal was clear: Gain some experience at the “backwater” garden and move on to bigger opportunities.

More than 42 years later, 28 as the F. Otto Haas executive director, Meyer is at last ready. This month, the 66-year-old plans to retire from the 170-acre, public arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania located off Northwestern Avenue in Chestnut Hill. The horticulturalist will leave behind the place he has called home (he has lived on the property from Day One, as well) with a healthy endowment and world-class gardens — due in large part to his stewardship. (Meanwhile, Morris is busy interviewing candidates in the hopes of having a new director by the summer.)

“That something bigger came here,” he says from his spacious office that overlooks a stand of red-berried hollies and an impressive London plane tree, “so I didn’t have to move on.”

Even now, Meyer will not go far.

Despite the drizzly day, the rooftops of Chestnut Hill peek from the distant tree line, where he and his wife have bought a home. When not traveling, Meyer aims to continue writing plant profiles and to organize his 105,000 digital images — he’s an avid photographer of gardens and trees — contributing the best to the arboretum’s archives.

That type of dedication helps explain his longevity and rise at Morris, a tenure unusual in the botanical world.

“That is very significant,” says Bill Thomas, executive director of Chanticleer in Wayne for 16 years and a four-decade-plus friend, “not only being at the organization that long, but working his way up and leading it. That’s a long time to remain vibrant.”

Meyer is not the only changing of the garden guard. At Jenkins Arboretum & Garden in Devon, Harold Sweetman, who succeeded the original director (his father, Leonard), plans to retire in June after 33 years. That marks the end of 43 years of Sweetmans, who brought significant change to the 48 acres. A pathway system was developed, a pond created, a greenhouse added, staff expanded, and an education center completed.

Morris, too, needed similar work. When Meyer arrived to take on the curator of the plant collection job, the place was “run-down and forgotten, … tattered elegance,” he says, “and had never really achieved the dream of the founders.”

The summer home of siblings John and Lydia Morris, whose family’s wealth came from iron manufacturing, was replete with gardens, fountains, and sculptures. With no heirs, they imagined it transformed into a public institution dedicated to preservation, education, and research.

“They had traveled the world, and they had seen the great botanic gardens,” Meyer says. “It was their vision this would someday rival the greatest gardens of the world.”

Starting with William M. Klein, the first full-time director from 1977 to 1990, and continuing with Meyer himself, the commonwealth’s official arboretum has grown into a gem. (Otto Haas’ leadership and financial support also played a significant role.) Today, the garden attracts 142,000 visitors annually, offering natural beauty, education to the next generation of horticulturalists, and crucial research on the best plants to sustain Morris, a greener Philadelphia, and gardens near and far.

Meyer, tall like a sequoia at 6-foot-4, is gregarious, talking hours about Morris’ progress, its volunteers, its staff, its future, and its trees, his specialty. But he is ever reluctant to claim credit.

“I played a role, but it’s a team of people. ‘We stand on the shoulders of giants,’ ” he says, citing the popular quote. “That’s been my philosophy.”

Ann Reed, an emeritus member of the advisory board, has known Meyer since the mid-'80s, and she praises his adeptness at raising funds — arguably the real fertilizer.

“He didn’t do it in a development way,” she says. “He made friends.”

Under Meyer’s leadership, Morris saw a transformation in many areas:

Finances. Weeks after he became director, he had to lay off staff (many longtime friends) to fix the finances of the in-the-red Morris. With a balanced budget that has since more than quadrupled to $9 million, Meyer turned to building an endowment, growing it 10-fold since 1991 to its current $60 million.

Attractions. Meyer oversaw major face-lifts to fountains, the Victorian fernery, and various buildings. In 1997, the wowee! Garden Railway, a quarter-mile model train track that features buildings made of natural materials, doubled annual attendance to 75,000. Similarly, the 2009 canopy walk boosted visits to 120,000.

Education. The endowed Internship Program that offers nine paid, yearlong opportunities for hands-on work is his pride. Why? His own in-the-dirt experiences.

A job at Ohio State University’s garden as an undergraduate prompted Meyer’s switch from engineering to horticulture. Before attending the University of Delaware’s Longwood Graduate Program, he worked a stretch at Harold Hillier’s nursery and arboretum in England. (Yes, that Hillier, whose thick Hillier’s Manual of Trees and Shrubs stands as the woody plant bible, a book Meyer keeps within arm’s reach.)

Both places, he says, had “such profound impact on my life.”

Meyer was raised in Cincinnati, the older son of a machinist father and stay-at-home mother, the first in his family to get a college degree.

“I’ve always been an amateur gardener, even as a kid,” he says of his parents’ small plot and work he did for neighbors.

Once at Morris, he became a plant Indiana Jones, traveling Asia and other locales to seek out specimens (he found a rare paperbark maple in China) to augment the arboretum’s living collection.

Meyer also is a founding member of the North America-China Plant Exploration Consortium, which has led to “a significant amount of Chinese-origin plants in a number of U.S. public gardens,” says travel companion Kris Bachtell, vice president of collections and facilities at the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago.

“Paul is unique in that he is an effective administrator and fund-raiser but also has kept his plant knowledge up to date,” he says. “He is a true plantsman.”

Initially, Meyer was not interested in helming Morris. But when the finalist withdrew unexpectedly, the board asked him to reconsider. As he reviews his career, Meyer says he has one regret: A state-of-the-art education center hasn’t been built.

He has often imagined John and Lydia Morris paying him a visit, he says.

“In 1978, I think they would have cried,” Meyer says. “But I think today, they would be,” and he pauses a beat, “90 percent pleased. We need that education center.”

Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Follow @KadabaLini