When Sy Sohmer arrived at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas 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 the 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.
But Sohmer, who is retiring from his post as BRIT’s president and director July 31, had a sense that there was plenty of potential.
“I didn't know anything about Fort Worth,” Sohmer said. “I didn't know who the Basses were, but I got a sense that something was going on. I didn’t have a clue what it would become.”
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, not only in Fort Worth, but around the world.
Harry Bartel, BRIT’s chairman of the board, praised Sohmer’s role in spearheading BRIT’s growth and getting financial support for the privately funded nonprofit organization.
“His invaluable accomplishments have put the institute on solid financial ground for many years to come,” Bartel said in a statement. “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 more than 1.1 million specimens and over 150,000 titles in its library. Its endowment has grown from zero to nearly $60 million.
Conservation and sustainability
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.
Even with that growth, it was critical to get a new building for BRIT.
“This is where we needed to be, adjacent to the Botanical Garden,’ Sohmer said.
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.
With its First Saturday programs that provide classes and tours, BRIT sees anywhere from 500 to 1,000 visitors to get out its message of conservation and sustainability. At the old warehouse, that wasn’t possible.
“There’s no comparison,” Sohmer said. “We were in a warehouse where you couldn’t park more than 20 cars. Here, you can’t drive up and down University without seeing this building.”
The higher visibility was crucial to the mission. As an example, BRIT currently has a program with the city of Fort Worth to offer $75 rain barrels to help promote water conservation.
“The whole thing is bringing our mission to the public,” Sohmer said.
‘I’m not through yet’
Sohmer said his wife, Sarah, urged him to retire after the new building opened in 2011 but he stuck around to raise more money for BRIT’s endowment. He now feels it is time to step aside and let others run the place.
“We’ve got a great team in place to the point that I’ve become superfluous,” Sohmer said.
Sohmer, who declined to give his age, remains 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 TCU.
But he doesn’t plan on sticking around Fort Worth after his retirement. Sohmer hopes to resume his research on systemic botany, which studies how plant organisms relate to each other. He is considering relocating to the Washington, D.C., area, possibly working out of the Smithsonian and traveling wherever his research takes him.
After Sohmer’s retirement, Patricia Harrison, BRIT’s vice president and director of education, will serve as interim director during the search for Sohmer’s replacement.
“I’m not through yet,” Sohmer said.