Arboretum head retires

John Ruch

Top staff spots vacant as new era starts

Arnold Arboretum Director Bob Cook took an early retirement last month after 20 years, and just before the planned opening of a new Research and Administration Building that marks a new chapter in the arboretum’s influential life.

Deputy Director Richard Schulhof moved on late last year as well, taking the directorship of California’s Los Angeles County Arboretum. That leaves Arnold Arboretum’s top two leadership positions open as it prepares to take its shot at becoming the premiere institution in research on the evolutionary biology of plants.

The arboretum is a self-funded institution of Harvard University, which has a search committee working on finding a new director. Harvard spokespeople repeatedly declined to comment on the arboretum’s current situation, saying they are focused on announcing a new director when the time comes.

Cook and Schulhof, contacted by the Gazette this week, both said that they left the arboretum amicably and remain confident in its quality.

“I’m sure it will go well,” Cook said of the upcoming leadership change in a phone interview with the Gazette. “When you have such a solid staff in place already…it’s hard for anything to go very badly, as long as the search committee does its job reasonably well.”

Cook, who was a full-time administrator, added that he thinks it is time for a director who is more actively involved in the science—“someone with research stature.”

The arboretum, on the Jamaica Plain/Roslindale border, is well known for its role as a City of Boston public park. But the arboretum is also a living museum of plants for researchers at Harvard and other institutions.

For years, most of the arboretum’s research went on invisibly at labs in Cambridge. Now, that work is poised to happen in a new, state-of-the-art Research and Administration Building nearing completion in a corner of the arboretum along the Roslindale/West Roxbury border. Its opening date is “uncertain” and apparently on hold until a new director is named, according to Cook, a Brookline resident who remains actively involved in construction meetings.

Cook originally planned to retire in the summer of 2011, and early timelines had the Research and Administration Building up and running well before then. But Harvard recently offered him a retirement program with a “financial incentive” to retire 18 months early, he said.

“It would have been great to hang around long enough to get things started” with the new facility, Cook said. But, he added, the retirement package made sense.

Cook oversaw big changes at the historic, 140-year-old arboretum, including creating the Leventritt vine and shrub garden and renovating the main Hunnewell Building.

But his biggest contribution, he said, was a “hidden” one: “the recruitment of first-class staff.”

“I think the public side [of arboretum programming] is in really good shape” because of that, Cook said. He noted that despite the loss of Schulhof—the deputy director for seven years and head of public programming—the programs he established are still going.

“I miss the Arnold—a truly wonderful organization and landscape, but I’m enjoying my new work in California,” Schulhof said in an e-mail to the Gazette. “My decision to come to the Los Angeles Arboretum was made solely to accept a very exceptional leadership opportunity.

Cook’s most lasting legacy will be the Research and Administration Building, which drew heated neighborhood controversy over its size and various proposed locations.

“It’s no mean feat getting approval for a facility like that in the university and in the community,” Cook said. But, he added, it was worth creating a top-notch facility to attract top-notch researchers for decades to come.

“Now, what I feel is needed is the leadership to really move that forward,” he said. Noting that the Harvard search committee is “looking broadly” at both administrators and researchers as directors, adding that he would prefer the latter. The timeline on that search is unclear.

Cook was known in JP for his administrative role, but he had longstanding research interests as well. He previously told the Gazette about his studies of white violets, plants that sprout clones of themselves, allowing them to essentially move across the landscape in search of nutrients.

In retirement, Cook is going back to research—way back. He said he has been updating his studies on the subject of his undergrad thesis: the birds of North America.

“A lot of people, when they retire, go to the South Seas. I go to the library,” Cook said with a laugh. “It’s a lot cheaper.”

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