Judith Zuk, 55; Led Brooklyn Botanic Garden for 15 Years

By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 14, 2007

Judith D. Zuk, 55, who as head of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden helped to revitalize the venerable New York institution, died Sept. 1 at her home in Brooklyn. She had breast cancer.

Ms. Zuk was hired in 1990 and was the garden's fifth president. During her 15 years at the helm, she directed major renovations to the 52-acre garden, expanded its greening efforts to the surrounding community and took a lead in international plant conservation efforts.

Known for her people skills, Ms. Zuk raised funds to build and renovate some of the garden's signature features, including the Children's Garden, the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden and the Lily Pool Terrace. She was not the first female president of the garden -- she was the second -- but she became a role model for her generation.

"Judy was the first in a long line of females taking on leadership roles in public gardens," said Holly Shimizu, executive director of the U.S. Botanic Garden in Washington. "She was a very grounded person with lots of enthusiasm and energy."

Ms. Zuk drew up the Brooklyn garden's first master plan. During her tenure, annual attendance rose from 500,000 to about 700,000 despite the introduction of an admission fee.

For all her administrative skills, Ms. Zuk remained passionate about plants. She especially loved the cherry blossoms that are a signature feature of the spring in Brooklyn, as well as a display of deciduous magnolia trees that she could see flowering from her office.

Judith Daria Zuk was born Sept. 11, 1951, in Canandaigua, N.Y., and raised in Newark. She received a degree in botany from Rutgers University and a master's degree in public garden administration from the University of Delaware. Her studies also took her to England and to Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pa.

She came to the Brooklyn garden after serving as director of the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College near Philadelphia. While in Brooklyn, she became president of the American Public Gardens Association and established the U.S. headquarters of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an organization formed to protect endangered plants worldwide.

Ms. Zuk helped start community horticulture programs in Brooklyn that reach more than 40,000 residents and was a force behind the creation of the borough's first public high school with a focus on the environment.

She had planned a party for her 50th birthday -- on Sept. 11, 2001 -- when the terrorist attacks overtook the event. The next day, she scrambled to find staff members to open the botanic garden as a place for New Yorkers to find emotional sanctuary.

"There were people waiting outside the gate," she told The Washington Post, "so much in need of a space that represented security and all the good things in the world."

The following winter, her cancer was diagnosed. She retired in 2005 to focus on her health and was made president emeritus. The magnolia garden was named in her honor. A yellow flowering magnolia that had been bred at the botanic garden also was named for her.

Her marriage to Christopher Woods ended in divorce.

Survivors include a sister.

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