News Column

BRIT's head is retiring on July 31

June 6, 2014

By Bill Hanna, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

June 06--When Sy Sohmer arrived at the Botanical Research Institute in 1993, he had a staff of three with an annual budget of $175,000.

At the time, BRIT was housed in a 12,000-square-foot warehouse on eastern edge of downtown Fort Worth. The institute contained 400,000 dried plant specimens and had a botanical and horticultural library of about 50,000 titles.

Twenty years later, BRIT has grown exponentially.

With an annual budget of $3.2 million, a staff of 30 and a 70,000-square-foot LEED platinum-rated building adjacent to the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, BRIT now has a much larger profile.

This week, Sohmer, BRIT's president and director, announced he is retiring on July 31.

In a press release, Harry Bartel, BRIT's chairman of the board, praised Sohmer's leadership.

"Sy has served as our executive officer for more than 20 years as BRIT has grown and found its place among the great botanical research institutes of the world," Bartel said. "His passion, experience, and leadership have been instrumental to BRIT's success, and I know he'll be looking forward to many more interesting opportunities."

One of the key issues was fund-raising and Sohmer was instrumental in getting financial support for the privately funded non-profit.

"His invaluable accomplishments have put the institute on solid financial ground for many years to come," Bartel said. "To recognize Sy's contributions to BRIT, the Board will name him director emeritus and will present him with the 2015 International Award of Excellence in Conservation."

Under Sohmer, BRIT has the 11th-largest herbarium in the United States, including over 1.1 million specimens and over 150,000 titles in its library. It's endowment has grown from zero to nearly $60 million.

"My life's dream has been to create and lead a botanical organization of international renown," Sohmer said in a statement. "As a scientist, you are always looking for that one-in-a-million discovery. Well, in 1993, I made that discovery -- at BRIT. Since then, I have devoted my life to growing it into a research and educational organization that is known and respected around the world. What a gift it has been to be involved with the staff, nearly all of whom I have hired, members, volunteers, board, and the many donors without whom we could not exist! "

In a 2011 Star-Telegram article about its new $48 million building in the Cultural District, Sohmer talked about the importance of raising the profile of BRIT and reaching out to the community.

"The building was designed for that purpose, " Sohmer said. "We looked at a number of other locations, but we knew this is the best place for us to be."

The building includes many conservation features, including captured storm-water runoff, in-house irrigation, retaining ponds, wetlands, soil filtering, hardy native species and a "living roof" of plants.

"We're basically a conservation organization, and we wanted this building to reflect our conservation mission, " Sohmer said in a 2010 Star-Telegram article.

BRIT was first incorporated in 1987 to house plant specimens owned by Southern Methodist University after the school decided it didn't want to maintain its herbarium. In 1989, the collection was moved to the renovated warehouse in downtown Fort Worth.

Over the years, BRIT has also launched a respected scientific journal, and supported research in botanically diverse locales such as Madagascar, Peru and New Guinea.

Following his retirement, Patricia Harrison, BRIT's vice president and director of education, will serve as interim director during the search for Dr. Sohmer's successor.

Sohmer plans to remain active in a number of organizations, including the Society for Economic Botany, a fellow of the Linnaean Society of London, a research associate at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and an adjunct professor at Texas Christian University.

The article contains information from the Star-Telegram's archives.

Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna


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Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram (TX)

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