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Julian Duval, President/CEO San Diego Botanic Garden

Julian Duval became the first President/CEO (aka Executive Director) of Quail Botanical Gardens, now San Diego Botanic Garden (SDBG) in January 1995. Julian wrote the article below about his life in horticulture for the SDHS newsletter.

Just a Fortunate Nature Nut

The position at Quail Botanical Gardens brought me, my wife, Leslie, two cats, a box turtle and a personal collection of some 800 plants to Encinitas from Indianapolis, Indiana.

I was born the oldest of four children to a loving family. However, I never really felt the climate of a western suburb of Chicago was my best habitat. At an early age, I was influenced by my grandmother and started collecting plants. She bought me a piece of Hawaiian Cordyline trunk when I was six years old. Once it rooted, we put it in a dish garden that she showed me how to make. After about ten years, it became a centerpiece houseplant, until our cat decided to shred it one day.

My mother says I was a born “Nature Nut,” as animals and plants of all kinds were always my greatest passion. I lived in a very urban environment, but I was very influenced by the wonderful zoos, natural history museums, and plant conservatories in Chicago. They were my connection to see and learn about the diversity of the world’s biota.

I was also fortunate to have parents who encouraged my interest in nature. It was challenging at times for my mother, who never got used to some of the animals I would bring home. This was particularly true of the snakes, which were quite the escape artists. My dad did not mind so much, but he might have enjoyed his first born a bit more if I had also shown an interest in sports. However, my interest was very singular. In high school, I remember many of my classmates struggled to decide on career pursuits. Not me; I knew I wanted to work with animals and plants.

While I was in high school, I landed a summer job as a naturalist for the Cook County Forest Preserve. I also became a “groupie” at Brookfield Zoo’s (BZ) Reptile House, where I was later hired after high school as the youngest keeper. For seven years, I worked at BZ with a wide variety of animals, including bottle-nose dolphins.

I realized my dream of living in a warmer climate when I left Chicago to attend New Mexico State University. I loved my new home’s expansive beautiful natural areas, where the flora and fauna seemed very exotic compared to Chicago. The diverse ferns adapted to the Chihuahuan desert were the first native plants that grabbed my attention.

The call of the exotic was still strong in me. After graduating with a degree in Wildlife Science, I applied to Peace Corps, where I was offered a position to help open a new zoo in the Dominican Republic. At last, I was living where it would never freeze.

The Peace Corps is rightfully titled “the toughest job you will ever love.” It is also the best use of tax dollars our government spends on foreign aid and relations. I was able to contribute to the development of a modern zoo and spend some of the most important formative years of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My curatorial position at the zoo in the D.R. opened a door for me to move to Guatemala, where I was hired to manage the opening of a private zoo called Auto Safari Chapin. Now, I had two new zoo openings on my resume, and would have made Guatemala a permanent home if not for the dangerous political situation there in 1980.

I reluctantly left the tropics to work under the Director of the Indianapolis Zoo to guide the Zoo’s new $64 million design. I spent 15 years in Indianapolis, where I was in charge of the Zoo’s animal and plant collections. Zoo work in the 80s and 90s was exciting, as real advances were made in the roles that zoos play in conservation and horticulture.

Indianapolis is also where I met my wife, Leslie. We actually met at the zoo, so she knew all about my interests, which were literally brought home as an important selection criteria for our house was its suitability for an attached greenhouse. That is where my plant collection grew, and it eventually moved with us to Quail Botanical Gardens.

As I look back over the almost 20 years I have been with what is now known as San Diego Botanic Garden, it may have been the second toughest job I have ever loved. San Diego County, which operated Quail Botanical Gardens since its opening in 1970, had financial challenges that looked like they would bring about the closure of the Garden. The Quail Botanical Gardens Foundation (QBGF), with a small nest egg from two bequests, jumped in to save the Garden in 1993. By the time I arrived 18 months later, the financial reserves from those bequests were quickly being exhausted. A change was desperately needed.

Tax dollars no longer supported the Garden. The goal was to improve the visitor experience so that people would be willing to pay for its support and to encourage philanthropy. When I started, adult admission was only $2. Though adult admission is now $14, I am proud to share that our visitation has doubled in that time to over 209,000 people annually.

The Garden has been completely transformed from its County-operated time and there is a long list of dedicated and talented staff, volunteers, board members and donors who rightfully join me in taking pride in what we have accomplished.

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