By Mary Alice Hartsock
George Gephart says he might have failed at retirement the first time he tried it. Stepping away from the investment management business at age 52, he was actively serving the nonprofit community as Chair of Main Line Health and Trustee at the Curtis Institute and also Natural Lands Trust. He experimented with cooking, toyed with starting a business, played golf, hiked, kayaked, fly-fished, and sang with the a cappella group, The Tonics.
In short, George was happy. But as his wife, Elizabeth (Pooh) Gephart notes, George is a people person, and he missed the daily interaction and collaboration of an office environment. In 2010, he received an intriguing offer—the opportunity to interview for the job of President and CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences.
Pooh, who retired in 2014 as the Dean of Students at the Baldwin School, says it’s always “all or nothing” with George. Quite characteristically, he threw himself into his new challenge. He brought to his interview a 1-inch binder with tabbed dividers and documents detailing his plan for the Academy’s future. His preparation wowed the search committee, and the roadmap he created for his interview led him out of retirement and guided the Academy into 2017.
Seven years after that initial meeting, George says, “it is hard to imagine another opportunity that would have been as exciting and challenging—and such a perfect fit.” Having served on nonprofit boards and also managed many regional endowments and foundations in the investment management business for most of his career, he already had a great respect for what it takes to be the operating chief of a nonprofit. He quickly learned that being the “new guy” in a 200-year-old organization required the ability to inspire people to recognize the value in taking risks.
“George is very insightful and forward thinking, and he is good at helping people understand that change represents an opportunity,” Pooh says.
“If I can imagine a wonderful outcome, I’m anxious to get there,” George says. “By surrounding yourself with talented people and leaning on their expertise, you can do it. We have the best team here, including our volunteers.”
In 2010, George hit the ground running, and over his time at the Academy his leadership transformed the institution. He proposed and saw to fruition the Academy’s affiliation with Drexel University, a perfect partner with its science-led, research-driven focus, which strengthened the Academy’s mission, identity, assets, governance, and philanthropy. The Drexel combination led to the creation of the Department of Biodiversity, Earth & Environmental Science (BEES) at the University to prepare the next generation of scientists to address critical issues such as climate change. He engaged and empowered the Board of Trustees, leveraged the Academy’s foundational role in water quality research, united natural and environmental scientists under the common purpose of broad human impact and public engagement, and helped the institution reach solid financial ground for the first time in modern history.
“Working at the Academy has allowed him to tap into so many of his strengths and passions,” Pooh says. “He’s obviously excited and proud of the Academy and how much has been done. The Academy has gotten deep into the soul of our family.”
Pooh, who grew up in Philadelphia, has been visiting the Academy since her childhood when her mother, Antoinette Starr, served on the Academy’s women’s committee. She and George brought their own children to the museum many years ago.
George and Pooh’s three adult daughters, whom along with Pooh, George calls “the secret in [his] success,” frequently ask questions about the Academy. They have traveled to attend events and sent friends and relatives to explore the museum.
George and Pooh are members of the Academy’s Leadership Circles of Giving, and they have made ongoing financial and in-kind contributions for Academy fundraisers. They have generously supported expansions and renovations of the Academy’s museum and behind-the-scenes spaces. George has inspired giving within the Academy and its Board of Trustees by investing his own “heart, soul, and wallet” into projects he believes will spark future growth at the Academy. As George steps down this summer and the couple moves to Charleston to enjoy (this time) a permanent retirement, they plan to stay connected with the institution through fund- and friend-raising.
With a slate of new initiatives in progress, including changes to the visitor experience and research spaces, George’s legacy at the Academy will continue to unfold under a new president. He is confident that the Academy will identify a trailblazer to guide such a venerable institution into the future.
“I hope that my successor harnesses our momentum and that he or she takes us to an even higher level of achievement,” he says. “I would be so proud to be part of building an organization that gets stronger every day—to be part of the renaissance of the Academy.”
If you’d like to acknowledge George’s incredible leadership of the Academy, please consider making a gift in his honor at ansp.org/give.
This profile originally appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the Academy’s member magazine, Academy Frontiers.