After spending the past eight years promoting and spreading public awareness of the Friends of the Public Garden as its director of communications and outreach, Susan Abell retired from the role at the end of December.
Prior to joining the organization in the spring of 2016, Abell had worked for the Boston Harbor Alliance (the forerunner of the present-day Boston Harbor Now), so she was generally aware of parks friends groups , she said, although she was then admittedly unfamiliar with the Friends of the Public Garden itself.
“It was familiar, yet unfamiliar, ground,” said Abell, who added that as a Boston-area resident, she was already well acquainted with the three parks that fall under the umbrella of the Friends of the Public Garden – the Boston Common, the Public Garden, and the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.
Among the first challenges Abell tackled upon joining the Friends staff was helping to bring the organization into the modern age, including entirely revamping the website.
“When I arrived, one of the things I wanted to do, and one of the things that the Friends wanted me to do, was overhaul the website because it hadn’t been addressed in a number of years and was desperately in need of an update,” said Abell. “There were a lot of technical decisions that needed to be made that are critical to how people use [the website].”
While Abell was able to successfully fulfill her goal of overhauling the Friends’ website, she added, “It probably needs to be updated again.”
At a retirement party for Abell hosted by Leslie Singleton Adam, board chair, on Dec. 20 at Gibson Sotheby’s, Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden, credited Abell for enthusiastically taking on existing programming and working with consultant Karin Turner to make signature events, like Making History on the Common and Duckling Day, “bigger, better, and much more fun” than they ever were before.
Of this work, Abell said, “It’s really been a great partnership working with Karin and the Friends staff to make these events fun because it’s a lot of hard work and planning.”
As for promoting the work of the Friends, Vizza credited Abell for getting the group’s name in the parks, especially through new signage.
In particular, the ‘Friends at Work’ signs, with the approval of the Boston Parks Department, have popped up around ongoing projects in the three parks over the past few years to inform visitors that ongoing work and maintenance projects there can be credited to the Friends. “Otherwise, they’d have no way of knowing,” said Abell.
Abell also helped develop and grow the Friends’ tour program, which Vizza called “such a successful asset for the public, including the neighbors who have learned so much about the Garden in their midst.”
Together with two volunteers – Sidney Kenyon and Sherley Smith – Abell created the ‘Untold Stories of the Public Garden’ tour program, which Abell said was based on a “wonderful idea from Sidney and Sherley to educate the public about the history, horticulture and sculpture in the Public Garden.”
Abell was charged with finding volunteer tour guides; training and educating them on the history of the Public Garden; and then designing the tours.
“We sort of created it out nothing,” said Abell. “Some modifications have been made along the way, but it’s basically the same program that exists today.”
Additionally, Abell helped nurture the Young Friends into a “committed cohort of supportive stakeholders” who will help bring the three parks into the next generation, said Vizza. Abell also mentored two staff members – Beth Jordan and then her successor, Jan Trousilek, who now serves as the Friends’ communications, outreach, and design associate – during her time with the organization. (Abell credits Trousilek for taking the reins of the Friends’ social media presence and allowing it to expand significantly.)
In expressing gratitude to Abell at her retirement party, Vizza said, “Most importantly – I have appreciated, and will miss, your straight talk, your honest assessment of what might work and what might be a disaster. Your humor, your smarts, and your ability to roll with the punches – as working in this crazy world of caring for public greenspaces requires of us.”
Of Abell and her contributions to the Friends group, Adam said, “Sometimes when I think about the Friends, I think about the images you see and the work we do, and so much of what comes to people’s minds is the brand Susan was so important in developing. She really helped develop the brand…through the Young Friends, the docent tours, and our programming, like ‘Making History on the Common’ and ‘Duckling Day’ – all things that Susan had an important role in.”
Adam credits Abell’s work with the Young Friends and staff members, like Trousilek, for setting up the organization for future success.
Also, Adam pointed out that Ryan Woods, commissioner of the Boston Parks and Recreation Department, was on hand for Abell’s retirement party, underscoring the ongoing “hard work and partnership” between the city and the Friends of the Public Garden.
Likewise, Woods wrote in an email: “The Boston Parks Department has been partnering with the Friends of the Public Garden for 54 years. For the past eight years, it has been great to work with Susan Abell. Since Susan arrived, the Friends have reimagined their website, improved their communications, strengthened their social media platforms, enhanced their programming, and made sure everyone felt welcome in the Common, Garden and Comm. Ave. Mall. I wish her the best in her retirement, and I am sure we will see her volunteering in the parks.”