Blooming Where She’s Planted

New director Rochelle Wolberg is celebrating the past and charting the future of McKee Botanical Garden

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Rochelle Wolberg started her position as executive director of McKee Botanical Garden in January. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
Rochelle Wolberg started her position as executive director of McKee Botanical Garden in January. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

The minute Rochelle Wolberg turns off busy U.S. Highway 1 and onto the winding road bordered by ancient oaks, banyans, and palm trees that leads to her office in McKee Botanical Garden, her face lights up with a smile. This is where all of her experience, creativity, and endless energy have brought her, and she couldn’t be happier—or more excited about what the future holds.

As the historic garden’s executive director since January, Wolberg oversees a staff of seasoned professionals, an engaged board of directors, and a strategic plan that includes anniversary celebrations, special exhibits, events, and educational programs, plus a hoped-for future international water lily symposium.

The Stone Bridge at McKee is a popular place for photographs
The Stone Bridge at McKee is a popular place for photographs.

For someone who grew up in New York City and had no idea what she wanted to be or do when she got older, Wolberg can look back and appreciate the opportunities, connections, and timing that forged the path that led her to McKee.

“When I was an undergrad student majoring in psychology and contemplating graduate school,” she says, “I met a friend who told me there were some private independent schools that were looking for psychologists, so I applied to Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. I physically handed in my application at the last minute and got into the program.” Wolberg’s eyes light up as she recalls the squeaky-tight timing.

McKee’s Hall of Giants has the signature Waldo Sexton architectural style and was originally a gift shop in the early years of the garden. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
McKee’s Hall of Giants has the signature Waldo Sexton architectural style and was originally a gift shop in the early years of the garden. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

It was meant to be. So was the move to Florida, prompted by her husband. While not initially thrilled to be living in the Sunshine State, with dual degrees in hand she took her typical positive approach and began looking for a job.

“One day I saw a 2-inch advertisement for a learning specialist at Palm Beach Day Academy,” Wolberg recalls, fingers forming the small ad size she could have missed. She applied and was hired. Again, it was meant to be.

“As the lower-campus school psychologist, I was involved with everything,” she enthuses. “By my sixth year at the academy, we partnered with the Flagler Museum and Morikami Museum and established a museum program for the first grade. The culmination was a presentation on the early history of Florida, which the students had learned in trips to the two museums, and an exhibition of favorite objects from their personal collections. It was so successful, we expanded the program to kindergarten, where we partnered with the Norton Museum. Second grade was special, as we partnered with Mounts Botanical Garden.”

That collaboration led to the powers that be at Mounts offering Wolberg the position of director of programs and volunteers. “It was a huge leap because I was leaving a very comfortable setting and had no horticultural background,” she says. “When I told them, they said that it didn’t matter. What they wanted was someone to introduce children’s programs.”

Wolberg and her sister Jillian Rose Lim at Gapstow Bridge in Central Park
Wolberg and her sister Jillian Rose Lim at Gapstow Bridge in Central Park.

A love of nature nurtured over the years by her maternal grandparents, who owned a 100-acre coconut farm in the Philippines, and her mother, whose “amazing green thumb could grow anything,” plus the opportunity to expand the classroom setting prompted Wolberg to make the move to Mounts, where as program coordinator she initiated programs that drew children and their families to Palm Beach County’s largest and oldest public garden.

As a result, attendance numbers increased, additional educational programs dotted the garden’s calendar, community events expanded, and Wolberg was promoted to the position of director in 2017. Thanks to her leadership, Mounts, the garden that “inspires and educates through nature,” became an award-winning institution.

Wolberg is fitting right in at McKee Botanical Garden. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
Wolberg is fitting right in at McKee Botanical Garden. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

“The experience I had at Palm Beach Day Academy really prepared me for what we did at Mounts. One of the best things we did was strengthen our relationship with the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County,” says Wolberg, reflecting on her professional path, which was about to take a major jog north.

“When the application for McKee executive director found its way to me,” she explains, “it was presented as ‘we’re turning a new chapter; we’re looking for someone who can take the garden into the year 2050.’

McKee Botanical Garden is an 18-acre showcase for 10,000 varieties of native and tropical plants. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
McKee Botanical Garden is an 18-acre showcase for 10,000 varieties of native and tropical plants. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

“What I knew about McKee enticed me—the history, the incredible community support, and the connection with Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park, where I spent so much time with my parents and grandparents. William Lyman Phillips, who worked for the Olmsted firm, designed the basic infrastructure of McKee’s streams, ponds, and trails. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

So she didn’t, adding her name to the search committee’s short list of candidates from around the country being considered for the coveted position that became available after longtime executive director Christine Hobart announced her retirement last summer.

When it came time for what was to be her final interview, Wolberg was eagerly optimistic. “That’s when I met with the horticultural team, the entire staff, and we all just clicked. When I left I really had a good feeling. Within 48 hours they called and welcomed me.”

Wolberg arrived at McKee at a time when plans for the garden’s 25th silver anniversary in 2026 and the Children’s Garden’s fifth anniversary next year were already well underway.

In early summer along the paths of McKee, you’ll see a stunning display of water lilies in all their glory, along with other colorful blooms. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
In early summer along the paths of McKee, you’ll see a stunning display of water lilies in all their glory, along with other colorful blooms. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

“The 25th anniversary will be really special,” she says. “Here at McKee you have a cultural icon set in a natural, beautiful hammock that has generational significance. I think about those who volunteered on Saturdays—the “Saturday morning crew”—people from the community coming to help clean up the garden, to keep it going. There’s so much history. We’re thinking of having a commemorative book, and of course there will be special exhibits and events.

Water features wind through the garden, helping to drown out noise from outside the hammock. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz
Water features wind through the garden, helping to drown out noise from outside the hammock. Photo by Jerry Rabinowitz

“To celebrate the 2021 opening of the Children’s Garden, we’re bringing back Sean Kenney’s Legos. The new exhibit is going to be amazing, with over 40 sculptures made from more than 800,000 colorful Legos.” Wolberg smiles as she envisions Kenney’s larger-than-life birds, bugs, butterflies, and a bear or two popping up along garden pathways, circling ponds, and beside bridges.

Rochelle Wolberg may have arrived at McKee via the road less traveled in the traditional sense, but she knows it’s where she was meant to be. “The team here has embraced me and I’ve told them to hold on tight—it’s going to be a ride, but we’re all going in the same direction.”

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