“I want Texas to look like Texas and Georgia to look like Georgia.” That’s Steve Windhager using Lady Bird Johnson’s words to describe the vital role that the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden plays in preserving California’s native plants. Prior to becoming its executive director in 2010, Steve got to meet the former first lady, whom he recalls as “an active and powerful force,” when he was the director of landscape restoration for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.
It’s been six years since Steve took over the Botanical Garden, and what a difference he’s made. The organization’s controversies, financial troubles, and neighboring unhappiness are things of the past, and the new John C. Pritzlaff Conservation Center, an 11,500-square-foot facility, just opened on July 13 as the new educational face of the garden. It’s a strong sign of forward momentum for the Mission Canyon institution, which is the oldest botanical garden in North America that’s focused squarely on native plants and has been a world leader in conservation since the 1960s.
In person, Steve is easy going and relaxed. In his spare time, he’s an avid woodworker, a hobby he shares with his dad, brother, and uncle. He proudly shows me a photo of his latest project: a desk for his office made out of a coast live oak that had to come down from the garden. Prior to coming to Santa Barbara, he’d never lived outside of Texas, but he and his wife are now thoroughly enjoying the American Riviera lifestyle.
Dr. Steve Windhager answers the Proust questionnaire.
What is your motto?
Change the world for the better.
Who do you most admire?
Aldo Leopold, one of the first people in America to begin to work to rebuild natural systems. He made the case that humans must be a part of (not apart from) the rest of nature.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Really good beer, preferably local especially when I travel. And Santa Barbara is a great place to indulge this extravagance. As the saying goes, life is too short to drink bad beer. And, of course, the occasional expensive woodworking tool.
What do you like most about your job?
I love leading a team of creative and dynamic people to do great things. Proving that we could do more together than any of us thought possible before we did it.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I am happiest at that moment when it all falls together and you know you will be able to achieve whatever it is you are working on, but there is still the anticipation of completion. This is true both in my hobby (woodworking), at work, or in personal life.
What is your greatest fear?
Dementia. Being still alive, but no longer present and unable to look to achieve anything in the future.
What is your current state of mind?
Anticipation. I feel like I have just finished a few big projects and I am starting to line up the next ones.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Straightforward, constructive criticism. I know that I can always improve and I value those who are willing to help me do it. A sense of humor, though, is also really helpful.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
I can’t stand it when people are mean. It is really annoying when people are thoughtlessly hurtful, but I can’t stand it when people are being intentionally mean and hurtful.
What do you most value in friends?
I tend to get focused on my own projects, so I really value friends that pull me outside of those and get me to try new things or just go out recreationally.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I think most people would say that it is my enthusiastic energy towards objectives. It is both a blessing and a curse as I know it can be really exhausting for others on those projects I am working on with a team.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“That will be easy…” and sometimes, “aren’t you done yet?”
Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I had learned how to play guitar as a kid. I played drums in high school, but I think guitar would have served me better.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wish that I enjoyed exercising on a regular basis. I do it, but every day it is an effort to make it happen.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
The team that I had built at my last job after 10-plus years. It was really high performing and having a big impact on the world.
Where would you most like to live?
My wife and I love Santa Barbara, but we have always had this fantasy of retiring to a warm water beach in the Caribbean. I imagine that I would go stir crazy, however, after a few weeks.
What is your most treasured possession?
I don’t think I have any physical thing that is all that treasured in my life.
Who makes you laugh the most?
I have to say that I enjoy watching a lot of comedians: Gabriel Iglesias, Aziz Ansari, and Louis C.K., but my favorites remain the ensembles from Monty Python and Spinal Tap.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Ben Franklin. An underappreciated figure in scientific, political, and social thinking.
On what occasion do you lie?
As an Eagle Scout, I make it a point to not lie, but I have to admit that there have been times that I have been less than forthcoming with information or my opinion. There never really is a right answer when someone asks you how they look in this outfit, is there?