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.
Gerber 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, QBG executive director Ralph Snodsmith decided it was time to hire a full-time staff member to develop educational programs for the fledgling public garden.
He asked Chuck Wade, then head of horticultural operations, to interview a 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,” Wade recalled. “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.’
“Fred found his place,” Wade continued. “He was surrounded by love in a place that loved him. Fred made me so proud of my choice in recommending him to Ralph Snodsmith, he never let us down. His effect on the first 50 years of QBG is incalculable.”
Through Gerber’s pioneering work, QBG gained a reputation for offering quality programs. He trained a legion of people, inspiring them to become environmental educators.
“Without a doubt Fred was a special and amazing educator,” said Tom Hurtubise, long-time curator of Education at the Queens Zoo. “I count him in a very small group of folks that inspired me in my career.”
Nancy Wolf created Green Horizons, a program to introduce 8th graders to environmental and plant-related careers.
“There will never be another like him,” she said. “His devotion was boundless.”
Gerber popularized “Learn by Doing,” a mantra in QBG’s educational programs to this day. He inaugurated the noted Children’s Garden program, wrote curriculum for school workshops and teacher training, and provided advanced lessons on evolution to college students.
Gerber shared his love of plants, gardens, and the environment with people of all ages and in all sorts of ways. He even hosted the eighth birthday party for the son of QBG treasurer Ed Potter in 1987.
He 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 from audiences.
Gerber also conducted the Tuesday Evening Lecture Series.
Those who knew him say Gerber nurtured people and gave them space to learn and grow. His unmistakable voice was also the voice on the QBG telephone recording for years.
QBG honored Gerber at its 2020 Rose Gala. Because the event was virtual due to the pandemic, there is extensive footage of Gerber expressing delight in his 50 years at Queens Botanical Garden.
“Fred was kind, intelligent and caring,” said Frank Mirovsky, who joined the QBG board in the late 90s and served as chair for a number of years. “He had a distinguished voice and excellent delivery. He was so sincere. The man was just perfect.”
“It was my honor and pleasure to accompany Fred on a number of outings to local garden clubs, community groups and local councils,” added Tim Heimerle. “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.”
In addition to being renowned in the environmental educator world, Gerber 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.
“He seemed to find daily inspiration in his work at QBG, and passed it on to many of us who were lucky to hear,” said former staffer Jess Brey.
Gerber had a committed relationship with Sunni Behrman, who lived near the garden, and considers 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 Gerber as director of Education, introduced him to Joan Gewurz.
“For the past 14 years, this kind and gentle man was our mother’s committed partner and friend,” wrote Gewurz’s daughter, Laura and Dayva, after learning of Gerber’s passing. “He brought her happiness and enriched our family.”
Current QBG executive director Susan Lacerte met Gerber in the early 1980s. When a Garden Interpreter internship position subsequently opened, she applied and was hired.
The experience confirmed to her that she wanted to work in the public garden world.
“I, like so many others, feel blessed to have known and worked with Fred for so many years,” said Lacerte. “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,” she added. “As Rebecca Wolf, the second person to follow Fred as director of Education, said, ‘It is hard to imagine Queens Botanical Garden without Fred.’”
QBG will hold a special celebration of Fred Gerber’s birthday on June 3 at 4:30 p.m. For more photos and an opportunity to share your thoughts and memories of Gerber, visit the QBG website..