Standing at age 8 in a botanic garden with his grandmother, Patrick Newman took a bite of a plant he would never forget. It tasted just like black licorice, which he loved.
Now 44, he’s leading the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and Botanical Research Institute of Texas as the CEO and president, a position he started in May.
“I remember being struck at that moment as an 8-year-old boy thinking, ‘Plants can taste like things — what else can plants do?’” he said. “That sort of set me on a path of inquiry and, as a youth, I devoured science.”
Newman took every science class he could and majored in biology in college with the intent to go into medicine.
His junior year, he needed to add another elective to his schedule. He chose plant pathology, which brought back that 8-year-old boy who tasted a plant flavored like candy and the kid who went hiking with his father and learned about all the types of plants.
If you go
Where: 3220 Botanic Garden Blvd.
When: 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. every day
Fee: Children 5 and under, free; child, 6-15 years old, $6; adult, 16-64 years-old, $12; seniors, 65 years and older, $10
Phone number: (817) 463-4160
He remembered his mother’s herb garden, gardening with his grandparents — all vivid memories about his connection to plant life.
“I made a decision that that’s where I wanted to be,” Newman said. “I wanted to be somehow connected to plants and, so I decided then, I was going to make a career out of plants.”
Rather than talking to his parents, who were funding his education, about his decision, he joined the Peace Corps with his wife. Newman spent two years volunteering in the Republic of Azerbaijan teaching science and English.
When he encountered a greenhouse there, he started teaching the students about plants and gardening. In 2007, he became the director of programs for the Red Butte Garden in Salt Lake City. Newman became the executive director of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin in 2016.
Newman believes in the value botanic gardens bring to a city and quotes Lady Bird Johnson, who said, “the environment is where we all meet.”
“These are inherently inclusive spaces,” Newman said. “These kinds of places are welcoming and should be welcoming to all, and they provide respite; they provide a place of solace; they provide a place of inspiration. With everything that’s going on in the 24-hour news cycle, a garden like this represents a place of calm, serenity, consistency. There are certain quiet joys that you can only find in nature, and a garden in an urban setting is a great place to sort of step out of the business of the world and, for a moment, have sort of a quiet joy in nature.”
The Botanic Garden used to be owned and managed by the city, but in October it was combined with the Botanical Research Institute and is now private and charges admission. The institution can make a significant impact in the community, Newman said.
Assistant City Manager Dana Burghdoff said the city still owns the land and the buildings, aside from the Texas Garden Club building, on the campus. The city is in a management agreement with BRIT to run the garden.
Because he is still new to Fort Worth, Newman said he is interested in building a network and engaging with the community. He has been received “extremely well” by current Fort Worth leadership, he said.
Although Fort Worth is a rapidly growing urban area, Newman said, it maintains its “town feel.”
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“And what I mean by the town feel is that people are still very welcoming,” he said. “I’ve been really, really impressed with just how welcoming and kind the community is. I mean from Rotary, to individual thought leaders, industry leaders, this is a really, really open and engaging community. It’s been refreshing, very professional.”
Institute Board Chairman Greg Bird said Newman stood out during the CEO search as a real leader who was engaging and knowledgeable of the field.
With Newman running the institute, Bird said, he sees it becoming a nationally recognized institution like the Fort Worth Zoo.
“He’s got the vision and the support system to get that done,” Bird said. “And I just think we’re going to see one of the best gardens and research institutions working together. Within the next 10 years, it will be a phenomenal ecosystem that the city will be proud of and our community will be so proud of.”
Privatizing the garden allows it to earn more money so it can grow and improve, Newman said. But it also allows the staff to keep track of who is coming and determine what communities are not visiting the garden and explore how to get them to the garden.
“It certainly helps financially, but also it gave us an opportunity to put some real strategy and purpose behind a lot of things that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” Newman said.
The garden and the institute are doing research that can have a global impact and raise the status of the institution, he said. The institute is working on digitizing a collection of a million and a half pieces of plants and research.
Newman is highly regarded by other leaders in his field. Sabina Carr, CEO of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, said Patrick is caring, thoughtful and intelligent.
Newman was in Austin when Carr took over the San Antonio garden, and she said he took the time to drive to San Antonio to welcome her during her first week.
“He cares deeply about our industry and how we all lift it and move it forward,” Carr said. “Our industry is one of sharing, because we believe the more we share with each other, whether it be plant knowledge, science, research, conservation events and programs, that will just help Botanical Gardens nationwide.”
Though the COVID-19 pandemic, Carr said, she and Newman leaned on each other to figure out how to keep gardens open and thriving. Now, she said, Newman’s biggest challenge is merging the garden and the institute.
“They are very different from each other,” she said. “How, as a leader, do you bring that culture to be one? I believe that’s his biggest lift, and he can do it. If anyone can do it, he can. I have total faith in him.”
To help the garden be a bigger part of the community, Newman said he is reaching out to community organizations like the Boys & Girls Club and food banks.
Newman has several goals for the garden. One is to reach 200,000 guests this year, but he also wants those guests to come from all ZIP codes. Events like Celebramos! for Hispanic Heritage Month are part of that initiative.
He also wants the research to be recognized globally. The institute has huge rooms or rare books and pressed plants, some dating back to the 1700s, that researchers are studying and digitizing. It is the ninth-largest herbarium in the country.
Additionally, Newman said, he wants to see the education outreach increase to get more children involved.
As the garden grows and he grows as a leader in Fort Worth, Newman wants to stay kind.
“A good leader is inherently a kind person,” Newman said. “They really care about the people that they work with and the people that are part of the organization. Certainly, they have to inspire and drive direction and those sorts of things, but talented people are attracted to people that care about them.”
With the changing workforce, Newman said, the typical CEO is changing, too.
“That old guard machismo, sort of, uber charismatic, I think that’s less important now than it was a few years ago,” he said. “I think what many people expect or want from a leader is someone who genuinely cares who is fully invested in the organization, and in the people that make up the organization.”
Patrick Newman Bio
Birthplace: Bountiful, Utah
Moved to Fort Worth: May 2021
Family: Wife, two daughters, dog
Education: B.A. biology, University of Utah; M.P.A. Nonprofit Management, University of Utah
Work experience: 2016-2021, executive director, Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center; 2007-2016, director of programs, Red Butte Garden
Volunteer experience: 2021-present, DLG (Directors of Large Gardens) facilitator; 2019-2021, DLG Advisory Committee member; 2007-present, APGA (American Public Gardens Association) member; 2003-2005, Peace Corps volunteer in the Republic of Azerbaijan
First job: Cutting corners, literally, at a box-making factory
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Remember, there is great power in kindness. Talented people are attracted to those who care about them, and there is no better way to show you honestly care than by being kind.
And peanut M&Ms make everything better.
Best advice ever received: Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not. – The Lorax
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified to detail the agreement between BRIT and the City of Fort Worth.
Kristen Barton is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.