July 29, 2014

Bruce Smith

The Massachusetts Horticultural Society lost an unsung hero this week.  He was a reluctant hero and a somewhat improbable one, but a hero all the same.  His name was Bruce Smith.

In 2008, Bruce was happily retired from a career in finance with Raytheon.  His wife, Linda Jean, was rising through the leadership of the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts.  By custom, the Federation has a chair on Mass Hort’s Board of Trustees and, from 2007 to 2009 that chair was occupied by the Federation’s First Vice President, who happened to be Linda Jean.

2008 was the year Mass Hort imploded.  A venerable institution was found to be millions in debt and with an endowment that had been drained to pay everyday expenses.  The Executive Director resigned, three-quarters of the Society’s employees were let go and, in a move that sent shock waves through the region, Mass Hort announced the cancellation of the 2009 New England Spring Flower Show.

In hindsight, the implosion may have been inevitable.  The Executive Director who resigned was just the most recent of a line of hires with questionable management skills.  Mass Hort had already sold off its patrimony (Horticulture magazine and Horticultural Hall in Boston) to keep itself afloat.  As Boston magazine put it rather indelicately in an article a few months after the implosion, perhaps the Massachusetts Horticultural Society had simply outlived its usefulness.

A group of trustees and long-time volunteers thought strongly otherwise.  They dug into their own pockets and began a salvage operation.  They rallied every friend they could muster.

And into this storm stepped Bruce Smith. 

I know from personal experience what it is like to be married to an officer of the Garden Club Federation.  Your spouse’s causes become your causes.  Whatever skills you possess become available to the Federation and the causes your spouse supports.  It’s all there, tucked between the lines of your wedding vows.

Bruce possessed financial skills.  Moreover, he had no allegiances and no history.  There would be no sacred cows.  He held no formal title and certainly received no salary.  He did it for the challenge and, perhaps, because Linda Jean asked him to.

I knew Bruce because I, too, was drawn into Mass Hort by my wife, Betty.  She, too, was rising through the Federation ranks but she was also a Master Gardener who had done her training and internship at Mass Hort’s Elm Bank headquarters.  My contribution was to organize and run Mass Hort’s activities at the Boston Flower & Garden Show, a new venture that could bring badly needed cash to the Society.  Bruce and I got along because when he talked about ‘GAAP’ I knew he meant Generally Accepted Accounting Principles and not a place to buy jeans.  We also got along because I knew how to make a budget and stick to it.

Bruce faced ledgers that did not balance, drawers that were filled with unpaid bills, and a paucity of incoming cash.  He was not entirely alone; the trustees had found an organization that helped distressed non-profits and that group lent additional managerial expertise.  Another volunteer with an accounting background also stepped into the breach.

Bruce made decisions.  Many of them were unpopular and a few of them were bull-headed.  He doled out cash with an eye dropper and took a personal hand in collections.  But his actions stopped the hemorrhaging and, slowly, Mass Hort began to stabilize. 

Bruce was also blunt to a fault and spoke what he felt.  He had few friends at Mass Hort and he made enemies of those to whom he said ‘no’, most of whom were unaccustomed to hearing that word when they wanted to spend money on something.  More than once he stormed out Elm Bank vowing not to return.  There came a time when he finally kept that vow.

I am one of the many people who admired Bruce.  I firmly believe that, had he not stepped in when he did, the organization would have foundered and sank.  He was not a Man for All Seasons but, in Mass Hort’s season of dire need, he was there.

Bruce survived a bout of cancer last year but suffered a massive stroke on Saturday.  He died two days later.  He was 72.  He leaves behind his wife, Linda Jean; a son and two daughters and their families.