Remembering Audrey Booth — A 2014 Q&A

October 13, 2019

Audrey Booth, right, with Thelma Perkins.

TLC is saddened by the news that Audrey Booth, one of TLC’s best advocates, passed away on Sept. 29. She led the campaign to raise $3 million to purchase Johnston Mill Nature Preserve and served as a board member for six years. A tributary on the preserve is named Booth’s Branch in her honor. Below is an interview with her in the Spring 2014 edition of Conservation Connections. Her obituary is available here.

TLC Member Spotlight – An Interview with Audrey Booth

By Tonya Taylor, former membership and community outreach coordinator at TLC

Audrey Booth, a spirited leader of the TLC community, has been engaged with the organization from its nascent beginnings in the late 70s. Ms. Booth, a native of Nebraska and retired faculty member and associate dean of the UNC School of Nursing, remains passionate about land conservation and TLC’s future within the region. Her concentration, time, and tenacity have helped the New Hope Creek conservation initiative save 400 acres in addition to her integral fundraising role for TLC’s thriving 296-acre Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. Despite spring’s chill, I enjoyed meeting Ms. Booth in the warmth of her home with outdoor views of a lovely bottle tree and signs of an eagerly planned garden project about to commence.

AB:  How did you get involved with TLC?

TLC: Well, that is a many-layered answer. I’m a native of Nebraska.  For my first sixteen years, I lived on a farm with my parents and my brother. Nature was all around us, and it was flat. It wasn’t like it is here. I took birds for granted, but later became really interested. When I moved here, the opportunities were even better.  I became interested in land conservation, as that was a new concept to me.  We didn’t do that in the Midwest – we farmed it.

I became interested in New Hope Creek through Hildegard Ryals, the greatest proponent of New Hope Creek that could possibly be.  She had meetings at her house with Muriel Easterling and others to talk about saving New Hope Creek. I was associate dean of the UNC School of Nursing and part of my responsibility was to develop bylaws for a foundation. I became quite interested in fundraising. It’s always a kind of a quest. It’s like shelling on a beach. You never know what’s going to come up.

After I retired, I did some fundraising for New Hope Audubon. Hildegard contributed some items to an auction.  I remember I bought one of them. She became aware that I was a fundraiser and enjoyed it, so she got me on the TLC board around promptly.

TLC: What positions have you held within the organization? You just noted you were a board member.

AB: I was on the Land Committee.  That was our primary committee, and it focused on land acquisitions.  Triangle Land Conservancy was started in 1983.  The primary focus was on what ought to be saved, as there was so much.  Practically, only The Nature Conservancy had been operating in that way. Triangle Land Conservancy looks at smaller things in our six-county area, which enables us to be very knowledgeable about what opportunities might be available.

TLC:  What do you feel has been the greatest impact TLC has had in our region?

AB: Preservation of very important land. That is what attracted all of us as who started out. I think it continues to be a great need.

TLC:  What is your most memorable TLC experience?

AB: My most memorable TLC experience was trying to acquire around 300 acres of land for the Johnston Mill Preserve.  I knew from going along Mt. Sinai Road that there was a little plot of land – 30 acres – that had formally had a house on it.  The house burned down, and the parents left the land to their three daughters.  The land was just there and I thought, “Boy that would be a great thing to have! It’s right there. We should just add it on.”

When the land was presented (Johnston property), I suggested that we also add 30 acres along with it. That was a conversation stopper. But we had colored maps, and it was well received.  That was probably the first time I thought, “You can have ideas that are picked up here.”  That gave additional stimulus for fundraising, because we had to raise that money too.  This was a Clean Water Management Trust Fund Grant: to receive $2.5 million needed for the purchase, we had to raise something like $750,000.

I accepted the chairmanship of that fundraising committee, but I surrounded myself with good people.  Porsha McKnight was the president of TLC at the time, and Ginger Travis was an excellent writer with the university. And there were many more. We organized like anybody would for a major fundraiser. I’m going to say this all in one sentence so it sounds like it was easy, “We had a lot of meetings.” I believe we raised over $850,000. That was a very happy occasion.

TLC: What is your favorite preserve?

AB: Well of course, it’s Johnston Mill Nature Preserve. It became part of my life for seven to eight years.  When that opportunity began to be apparent, it was really great fun. It was managed by the Johnston Board of Trustees that administered the James M. Johnston estate. He was a son of the family of the descendants who lived on the land.  I believe it was a King Grant property; they’d had it since the 1700s.  James M. Johnston, was a very local man, although he lived in Washington, D.C., where he was a broker.  That history fascinated me.

TLC: Reflecting on TLC’s 30 years of service to the Triangle, do you see new opportunities or areas TLC should be focusing on?

AB: Well I think our land acquisition has always been focused on defending our good water and providing buffers.  We have wanted to preserve historically important places, beautiful places.  It was natural that as we acquired some of these places, we wanted to add educational components, and, more recently, locally grown food components and farms. I would like to see us concentrate on the acquisition of these special places.  We can always get back to using them in educational programs.  But if we let them get away, there is no recovery. They are gone.

TLC: What do you hope TLC would accomplish in the next 30 years?

AB: I hope we’ll get all of those wonderfully important lands under ownership or easements, so that they are protected and supported in their development – their careful maintenance appropriate to whatever land it is. I then think we can be in a position to have funds to use them for greater educational purposes than we’ve been able to so far. The local food movement is less urgent to me, but I’m sure that it is going to intensify. This community has already embraced it in a great way.  We’ve got more farmers’ markets than we’ve got farmers.  Lots of people are thinking 8 acres or 30 acres is a farm.  Where I come from, 300 or 600 acres was a farm. But we were not growing local food.  We were growing major crops for animal food to produce local meat.

And of course we have to think, well what does the membership want?  We’re not going to get contributions unless we are very tuned into what the membership wants. I think TLC is doing a good job. It used to be us older folks that recognized the need, so membership comprised more mature people. I think TLC’s done a great thing holding events for people with kids and young families. They’re the people of the future as far as the membership goes.  I look at that in not too a rosy a way but in a realistic way.  That’s the way of funding in the future.

TLC: What is your message to the millennials?

AB: In the last few days, there was a survey that found millennials less attracted to the church and less committed to what we consider the bedrock of most communities. So we’ve got to get them interested in the preservation of things, which they seem to be more interested. They’re the people who would want a little flock of chickens in their backyard.  I can’t think of anything worse than having had a flock of chickens in my backyard. I think there are more people attracted to that do-it-yourself quality and free range.

TLC: Earlier you had mentioned Hildegard Ryals.  TLC recently received a tremendous bequest of over $1 million from her. Given her passing would you like to say or reflect on her for a moment?

AB: I would say Hildegard was very positive thinker. Not always in an applicable method, but always hopeful and cheerleading, and working towards the goal.  She was a great activist in her hometown of Durham. She liked to do things residents could see the advantage of.

TLC: March is designated Women’s Heritage month. I recently went to a farmer’s meeting for conservation with our land manager and senior land project manager. One of the extension agents mentioned a “Women in the Woods” retreat, because women end up taking care of all the business after their husbands pass away.  I’d like to know what your experience has been like engaging women as the key stakeholders in land transitions/ land transactions.

AB: We are familiar with that. I can remember a number of situations in which we may have started the discussion with the couple, but we ended up finishing it with the widow.  But in those instances, usually there had been at least a great demonstration of interests that served as guidance for her.

The first and second executive directors of TLC were women. The organization began as a part-time endeavor with no staff to very little staff. I’ve formed such bonds with the people that I worked with at TLC.  The main bonding time came during the Johnston Mill campaign and buying land. TLC’s first director, Kate Dickson, remains a close friend.

TLC: Thank you for your dedication to land conservation in the Triangle and for all you have done for Triangle Land Conservancy over the years, Audrey.

AB: You are very welcome.

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