Former Red Butte Garden director says goodbye

(Photo courtesy of Red Butte Garden) Gregory Lee, then-executive director of Red Butte Garden, in an undated photo taken at an event in the garden. Lee has retired from the post after 17 years.

When Gregory Lee submitted his notice of retirement as executive director of Red Butte Garden in June 2019, he was not planning on transitioning into socially isolated hibernation.

“When you make your plans a year in advance, you don’t really factor in the probability of a global pandemic,” Lee said. He and his partner, Ann Deneris, “were looking forward to traveling and making memories together, but for right now, that’s on hold.”

Lee and Deneris used his accrued vacation time to visit the Galapagos Islands and New Zealand, and had more trips planned. Instead he’s been in his Salt Lake City home. The extra time has provided him the opportunity to reflect on his time at Red Butte Garden.

“Any time the community is supporting something you believe in, it’s reaffirming, but it’s invigorating, too,” Lee said. “We had over 400 active volunteers at the garden. Those are people who are coming to give of their time and their skills because they believe in the garden and care about it.”

When the going got tough, Lee took solace in seeing the love those volunteers had for the garden.

[Related story: Utah’s Red Butte Garden welcomes a new director, works to reopen]

Over 17 years, Lee oversaw the introduction of the Rose Garden and Rose House, expansion of the visitor center, construction of the Horticulture Building and other advancements. Red Butte’s concert series exploded in popularity after the renovation and expansion of the amphitheater, generating revenue for other projects in the garden.

Lee sees the Water Conservation Garden as one of his most important contributions to Red Butte.

“When I was young, there were two big movements — use of seat belts and recycling,” Lee said. “I think 40 years from now, water-wise gardening will experience as much growth as those two movements have. It will become second nature to us.”

Lee raised more than $25 million for improvements. Membership tripled during his tenure and now has eclipsed 11,000 active members. The annual operating budget grew from $2.3 million to $11.2 million.

“[Lee] is one of the most confident leaders I’ve ever worked with,” said Tory Magleby, the garden’s advisory board chair. “He ran the smoothest board I’ve ever worked on and always put the garden first. He is a truly kind and wonderful human.”

He is a “brilliant leader” who “brought [the garden] a long way in terms of budget and fundraising,” said Fred Esplin, former vice president for institutional advancement at the University of Utah, which owns the garden.

But Lee now is reflecting more on the people he met than his own feats.

“As it got closer I thought, ‘Holy cow, am I really doing this?’” Lee said. “The garden is a hard place to leave. Gardens tend to attract really nice people. Whether it’s the staff, members, visitors or donors, there’s something about botanical gardens that attract people who aren’t cut from the same cloth as the rest of the population.”

Lee has worked closely with new Executive Director Jimmy Turner to smooth the transition between the two botanists.

“There’s still an opportunity to take Red Butte from a very nice garden to an exceptional garden,” Lee said. “I think it’s a fabulous time in the garden’s history for its next executive director.”