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Peter Raven and Missouri Botanical Garden quietly prepare for his retirement

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2009 - There has been no official, fanfare announcement, but the word has seeped out quietly. Late last year, Peter H. Raven, the prodigous president and director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, began subtly letting people know that he intends to retire as of July 31, 2011. He will be 75 years old then and will have led the Garden for 40 years.

So, it's time, Raven says, adding that he has chosen to ignore a friend's tongue-in-cheek advice that he "stay on until you're entirely senile, and they'll pay you big money to get out."

A long, deliberate and gradual good-bye has been set in motion, with a search committee of Garden board members appointed and the Washington, D.C., executive search firm of Isaacson, Miller hired to help them.

"We don't expect it to be an easy search," says Nicholas L. Reding, the board's chairman. "We're getting a lot of (people saying) 'I'd rather be a successor to Peter's successor than be Peter's successor.' "

Such hesitation is understandable, so wide is Raven's renown, so intimately identified are he and the institution he has led and built these past 38 years. Save for a teaching stint at Stanford University after he got his doctorate in botany at the University of California Los Angeles, the Missouri Botanical Garden has been his life's work.

Everything about the Garden is many times bigger than when he arrived. The budget has blossomed to $10.1 million from $650,000 and its workforce to 467 from 85 people.

He has increased research, evolving the Garden into one of the world's leading botanical research centers with a collection of 5 million specimens and a staff that travels the globe identifying threatened specimens and training local people to protect them.

During his watch, the Garden has experienced a building boom: the construction of the Monsanto Research Center, the Schoenberg Temperate House, the William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening and the Ridgway Center, which serves as the Garden's entrance and also houses offices, galleries, a shop and a restaurant. In the Raven years, the grounds have also bloomed with new displays of irises, bulbs, daylilies, magnolias, boxwoods and roses and the addition of Japanese, Chinese, German, Ottoman, English woodland and Victorian gardens plus the Doris I. Schnuck Children's Garden.

All this while, Raven has grown into an institution in his own right, regarded far beyond the Garden's walls as a world-class botanist, author of dozens of scientific books and articles, expert on biodiversity and champion of species preservation, energy conservation and sustainable development. His list of awards, recognitions and professional activities goes on for pages. Just to skim the surface, he has been a "Hero of the Planet" by Time magazine, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award and the National Medal of Science, member of President Bill Clinton's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology.

Besides the outsized accomplishments and reputation of the man himself, the search for Raven's replacement is complicated by a tradition that the Garden's president also serve as a professor of botany at Washington University.

"Ideally, the successful candidate will possess a PhD in botany or plant sciences and a minimum of 15 years of leadership experience in a comparable institution," the search firm's website says. But Reding says the board is willing to consider outstanding administrators from other types of institutions. As for the final choice, "clearly it has to be somebody Peter is comfortable with," Reding says.

Despite the complications, the search has already identified a handful of candidates. "We've looked at nine names very seriously," "very good" people, Reding says, and interviews with four or more of them will begin late next month.

And that's just the first round of face-to-face screenings. There may be more since the search firm continues to scout candidates, Reding says. "It's unpredictable how long this is going to take." And Raven's self-chosen retirement date, more than two years away now, allows for a substantial waiting period should his successor not be immediately available when tapped.

The expectation is that the two will overlap for a period of time, working together until Raven exits.

And then? "We'd like to use his fund-raising ability beyond that, but his successor will have to be comfortable with that," says Reding.

Susan C. Thomson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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