Op-Ed: Requiem for a giant of conservation in New Jersey

Tom Gilmore, the former president of New Jersey Audubon, is remembered for his quiet, effective leadership in conservation efforts

New Jersey lost one of its most admired and effective conservation leaders Saturday when Tom Gilmore died peacefully in his sleep. After retiring in 2012 from a 30-year tenure as the president of New Jersey Audubon, he leaves a legacy of environmental leadership and accomplishments that will not soon be matched.

Tom was soft-spoken and clearly shunned the limelight sought by many of his colleagues. But he was also obviously in the forefront of virtually every significant conservation effort during the last four decades. In fact, if you look closely at the major players in virtually every major initiative or activity since the early 1980s — from the protection of freshwater wetlands, the Highlands and critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, to the efforts to secure a stable source of funding to preserve open space and farmland — Tom was right there in the thick of things, quietly leading by example and making things happen.

It is no surprise that governors from both parties and every commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection called upon Tom for his sage counsel and to serve on their transition teams and the various advisory groups they assembled to identify solutions to environmental problems. Tom just had a way of being able to work well with all manner of people.

When other environmentalists were alienating the corporate community or the farming community or the hunting and fishing communities, he was building bridges and coalitions that got the job done. And all the while, he never once bragged or tried to upstage his colleagues. As a result, you will not find anyone on any side of an environmental issue who will voice anything but respect for Tom while singing his praises.

Tom came to New Jersey from a stint as the general manager for the Philadelphia Zoo, where he learned how to manage people and to run and grow a large organization.

That experience would pay large dividends, as he soon transformed New Jersey Audubon into one of the leading conservation groups in the state, if not the country. It also positioned Tom to share that experience with the wider environmental community, which is not always known for its crack organizational skills, or for playing well in the sandbox together.

These bona fides also made him an effective advocate for the environment with the business community, as evidenced in his work with the Stockton Alliance, various statewide open-space funding coalitions, and Audubon’s own Corporate Stewardship Council.

Planning for the future of his organization

It also led him to successfully plan for his own transition into retirement as he implemented one of the very few succession plans ever done in the environmental community, with the full consent of his board, thus assuring that the organization he built would continue to thrive under the leadership of the successor he chose and carefully mentored — no mean feat in the not-for-profit world!

I was privileged to work with Tom on many of these initiatives, and to call him my friend.  There were many times when I clearly felt exasperated or frustrated, and Tom would pull me back from the brink with a knowing roll of his eye.

As an avid fly fisher and the author of many fly-fishing books, the conservation of our natural resources was very personal for Tom, and he took his fishing seriously. We fished together only occasionally, and his patience with my inability to cast with the ease and grace he exuded was both legendary and appreciated. But that was just Tom being Tom.

Many successful folks are simply incapable of stepping down at the zenith of their careers. Their pride and ego force them to stay too long until they eventually lose their effectiveness. That was never an issue with Tom, who carefully planned his exit so that he would have more time to spend with his wife Joanne, his three daughters, and his grandchildren. And, in addition to focusing on his family, he put his time in retirement to very good use, writing several additional books on fly fishing, and serving as president emeritus for New Jersey Audubon.

In 2012, I had the honor of serving as the emcee for Tom’s retirement event, which was quite the enjoyable environmental happening. Obviously, no one suspected then that our colleague would be taken from us so soon.

On a personal level, I had really hoped that we would be able to grow very old together, and that I would finally learn how to fly fish. But now, as I precariously balance alone in a wild river without his advice, hoping against hope for a trout to rise, I will think of this wonderful friend who made such an incredible difference in so many lives. And I will smile at the times and trials that I got to share with such a marvelous, gentle man.