Remembering Fred Gerber

Remembering Fred Gerber
March 31, 2021 Anne Tan-Detchkov

Remembering Fred Gerber

June 3, 1945-March 17, 2021

Fred worked at Queens Botanical Garden for over 50 years.
To many, Fred WAS Queens Botanical Garden.

Ferdinand J. Gerber was born on June 3, 1945, the only child of Ferdinand and Helen (Lichtenberger) Gerber. The family lived in Carlstadt, New Jersey, surrounded with plants, music, animals, and many other things of interest. Fred graduated from Rutgers University, with a BA in Biology and Minor in Education, in 1967; he added an MA in Botany from Connecticut College in 1969.

In the early 1970s, Ralph Snodsmith, then QBG Executive Director, decided it was time to hire a full-time staff member to develop educational programs for this fledgling public garden. He asked Chuck Wade, then head of horticultural operations, to interview this young man from New Jersey.

“I could tell that Fred had keen botanical knowledge from his studies at Rutgers and excellent graduate studies at Connecticut College. He had also participated in field research and did extensive reading. When Mr. Snodsmith asked me what I thought, I told him, ‘If I were you, I would hire him.’”

Chuck went on to say that “Fred found his place, where he remained for over fifty years. He was surrounded by love in a place that loved him. I rejoiced in Fred’s accomplishments. Fred made me so proud of my choice in recommending him to Ralph Snodsmith. He never let us down. His effect on the first fifty years of QBG in incalculable.”

Through Fred’s pioneering work, the Garden gained a reputation for offering quality programs. Fred trained a legion of people, inspiring them to become environmental educators.

Tom Hurtubise, long-time Curator of Education at the Queens Zoo, said, “Without a doubt Fred was a special and amazing educator. I count him in a very small group of EE (environmental educator) folks that inspired me in my career.” Nancy Wolf, herself an environmental educator par excellence and a creator of Green Horizons, a program to introduce 8th graders to environmental and plant-related careers, said, “There will never be another like him; his devotion was boundless.”

Fred started the Education Department. Fred popularized “Learn by Doing,” a mantra in QBG’s educational programs to this day. Fred inaugurated the noted Children’s Garden program, wrote curriculum for school workshops and teacher training, and provided advanced lessons on evolution to college students. Fred shared his love of plants, gardens, and the environment with people of all ages, and in all sorts of ways. QBG Treasurer Ed Potter said that Fred presided over his son’s 8th birthday party, in 1987. Fred gave lectures to civic associations, taught holiday plants to garden club members and at senior centers, tutored teachers, and dazzled audiences through video teleconferencing, receiving standing ovations with audiences connected by television! Fred also set up and conducted the famous Tuesday Evening Lecture Series. It was at one of these in the early 1980s when I was introduced to Fred. When a Garden Interpreter internship position subsequently opened, I applied and was hired. What a thrill it was to be PAID to do what I loved to do! That internship provided confirmation to me that I wanted to work in what I now know as the public garden world.

Fred nurtured people. He also gave them space to learn and grow. He listened. He spoke with that unmistakable voice, which was also the voice on the QBG telephone recording for years. He was amazingly observant of people and saw good in everyone. Fred was the “closer” at staff parties, the person who wrapped it all up, with kindness and humor, heaping accolades on the honoree.

I am so glad that in 2020 we decided to honor Fred at our Rose Gala. It is because of the Covid-19 pandemic that we flipped our gala from an in-person to a virtual event. As a result, we have wonderful footage expressing delight in his 50 years at Queens Botanical Garden. I hope you will watch Fred accepting his award.

Frank Mirovsky, who joined the board in the late 1990s, then served as Board Chair for a number of years, said, “Fred was kind, intelligent, and caring. He had a distinguished voice and excellent delivery. He was so sincere. The man was just perfect.”

Tim Heimerle, a former director of development, wrote, “It was my honor and pleasure to accompany Fred on a number of outings to local garden clubs, community groups and local councils. I was always astounded at his encyclopedic knowledge of plants and his gentle way of telling a story. He seemed to always have a sense of wonder about the world and was happy to share that with anyone.” Former staffer Jess Brey said, “He seemed to find daily inspiration in his work at QBG, and passed it on to many of us who were lucky to hear.”

In addition to being a rock star in the environmental educator world, Fred was also a member of the renowned Hortus Professional Horticultural Society, and MetroHort Group. He served as Secretary for the Kissena Corridor Park Conservancy, was on the Board of the Voelker-Orth Historic House & Garden, and participated in New York Root Zone, Holly Civic Association, and the Queens Boro Hill Civic Association.

While Fred created family over decades here at Queens Botanical Garden, he also created family with others. Fred had a committed relationship with the late Sunni Behrman, who lived up the hill from the Garden, and considered her children, Lori and Jay, as his stepchildren; they were integral parts of each others’ lives and celebrated holidays, birthdays and life together. Later, Patty Kleinberg, who followed Fred as Director of Education, introduced Fred to a friend, Joan Gewurz. As Joan’s children said in the announcement of Fred’s passing, “For the past fourteen years, this kind and gentle man was our mother’s committed partner, and friend. He brought her happiness and enriched our family.” Daughters Laura and Dayva and their families and extended family loved Fred, and welcomed him into their family.

I, like so many others, feel blessed to have known and worked with Fred for so many years. Fred had a gift like no other. Fred delighted people of all ages with his joy of plants and learning, whether they were adults studying botany, summer youth finding out about work and life, or tiny tots just learning to ask questions. Fred set the cornerstone for the solid educational footings we have in the Education Department today, and we are so thankful. As Rebecca Wolf, the second person to follow Fred as Director of Education, said, “It is hard to imagine Queens Botanical Garden without Fred.”

Susan Lacerte
Executive Director
Queens Botanical Garden


Save the Date

Celebrating Fred on his Birthday!
June 3, 2021 at 4:30pm
Queens Botanical Garden

Details will be posted soon.


We welcome your thoughts and memories of Fred in the Comments section below.

Please note that comments are reviewed before publishing.

Photos:
Fred delighted in community festivities and took great joy in playing Dracula for kids in our Pumpkin Patch.
Fred found daily inspiration in his work at the Garden.
He was a natural tree hugger and would often hug a tree in the middle of his lively garden tours.
Fred shared his love of nature with people of all ages, and in all sorts of ways. He has touched the lives of thousands of students, interns, colleagues, and community members. 


Please share your thoughts and memories of Fred under the “Leave a Reply” section below.

Please note that comments are reviewed before publishing.

3 Comments

  1. Patty Kleinberg 2 weeks ago

    My fondest memories of Fred are when he embodied characters to teach and entertain. Most people talk about his Dracula but my favorite was Freddy the Fruit Fly! He’s a whimsical composting critter in Essie’s Great Adventure, a puppet show written by Education Manager Lois Shuman. It lives on in recording and I hope we can reprise the show in the future. Before the internet and video streaming, the education department used “old fashioned” video teleconferencing technology. Fred was the ultimate showman. He created sophisticated live productions that educated and amazed classrooms as far away as Ohio and Texas. I always thought he should have been on television.

    As a colleague, Fred was my rock. I followed in his footsteps as education director and was so grateful that he remained involved. The help he gave me launching the Urban Advantage teacher training program was invaluable. He continued to help with school and public programs both on and off site. Everybody requested Fred! He helped train new instructors, mentored interns and cared for the plants in the education greenhouse. Fred grew education from a seedling and nurtured in for 50+ years. His legacy lives on.

    As a friend, Fred gave unconditional love and was generous to a fault. He showed genuine interest in everyone he met, always praising others. Meanwhile, under those still waters of humility was a man of great knowledge and passion for the world around him. He shared it with so many and everybody loved him for it. I can still hear his distinct voice. I feel deeply privileged to have been Fred’s friend and colleague. I will miss him.

  2. Teri Monge 2 weeks ago

    I think Fred knew just about everything that matters in this world. Fred knew how to inspire people, how to educate people. He knew how to excite people, how to engage people. He knew how to take pleasure in little things–on Monday mornings, when I came into work, we would talk about our respective weekends and I’ll never forget his sheer delight when he told me about seeing Toy Story 3. He just loved it! Fred was humble and unassuming. He was a gentleman, and he was a gentle man. He was my teacher, he was my colleague, he was my friend. And, oh yes, he knew a thing or two about the great outdoors, which he shared eagerly with anyone who took the time to listen, which is something I did at every opportunity. I will miss him very much.

  3. Louis Bauer 2 weeks ago

    Fred was always the first person to say hello with a heartwarming smile when I attended Hortus Club meetings. Beneath his everyman-friendly first impression was a committed and intelligent plantsman. His presence will long be remembered and missed.

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