I’ve covered the Botanical Research Association of Texas (BRIT) for about 10 years, about as long as I’ve been at Fort Worth Business (back then, the Business Press).
I always enjoyed covering BRIT, partly because it is one of those stories that is mostly positive but also because it is simply interesting to anyone attempting to understand this big, diverse world we live on. I say mostly positive because when I first went to speak with then executive director S.H. “Sy” Sohmer for my story, BRIT had just been the subject of a Fort Worth Weekly story – this in the era when the Weekly could rip Mother Teresa a new one just for grins. The story on BRIT? A shock to Sohmer, the story read like a love story.
Maybe it’s BRIT’s charter, a herbarium that helps preserve the genetic diversity of the planet’s plant life. While arguments about global warming can cause cable TV fireworks, few can deny that genetic diversity among the earth’s plant life is a good thing.
So when I attended the organization’s 2015 International Award of Excellence in Conservation award program it was a bit like the end of an era. This year’s award went to Sohmer, who headed up the organization until retiring in 2014. Sohmer grew the organization from three people working in a warehouse with an annual budget of $175,000 into a world-renowned institution with an annual budget of more than $3 million and an endowment of more than $30 million.
While that was key to the organization’s longevity, Sohmer also broadened BRIT’s public profile, moving its headquarters from an out-of-the-way warehouse to a LEED Platinum Building nestled prominently near the similarly-focused Fort Worth Botanic Garden.
While doing all that, Sohmer remained a scientist, a researcher, at heart. That’s what he is doing now, as a research associate at the Smithsonian Institution’s Natural History Museum. Speaking to his former BRIT colleagues and Fort Worth friends, Sohmer’s message focused on the work and goals of BRIT.
“The world as we find it and as we mean to leave it, is simply a planet in a better, more sustainable condition,” Sohmer said in his speech at the awards event.
As a botanist, Sohmer said, he has seen many species disappear right before his eyes. “The group of plants I worked with in the Philippines has mostly disappeared,” he said.
Why is that important? Those plants can be key for other living creatures, for medicines and may be key to an ecosystem. They keep our world viable, Sohmer said.
“How do we begin to repair a damaged grassland, a devastated wildlife habitat, a choked and polluted waterway, an atmosphere that ceases to be breathable? How do we educate ourselves and our children with an understanding of a delicate balance between natural resources and our own long-term well-being?
“Who ya gonna call? In this community, in Fort Worth, the collection, the research, the amalgam of individuals, the 21st century heirs to the special heritage of natural science research is here because this community recognizes it, values it and supports it,” he said.
So here we are with an organization in our backyard that can make the world a better place. We should make the most of it.