Deering Estate Foundation Announces Retirement of Executive Director Mary Pettit

The Deering Estate Foundation has announced that Mary Pettit, its Executive Director since 2007, will retire effective May 31, 2018.  Established in 1989, the Foundation is a community-based charitable 501(c)3 Florida Corporation and the philanthropic arm of the historic Deering Estate, located in Palmetto Bay.  A search is underway to fill the Executive Director position.

When Mary joined the Foundation, it was comprised of just one part-time administrative assistant, 12 board members, a few hundred members and very sparse resources.  Under her leadership, the Foundation’s assets grew from under $50,000 to more than $8 million, and the annual operating budget grew steadily from under $100,000 to nearly $1 million.   Membership has grown to over 2,000 households.

Mary Pettit

The Foundation’s portfolio now includes a two-tiered endowment that generates earnings to support the Foundation’s and Estate’s objectives, as well as an 8.75 acre property adjacent to the Deering Estate graciously donated by Marta Weeks-Wulf in 2014 that will eventually be repurposed to serve as the Estate’s new Institute for Conservation & Learning. 

“It is bittersweet,” said Pettit. “I have enjoyed an incredibly wonderful, productive and fulfilling journey at the Deering Estate, one filled with endearing friendships, partnerships and accomplishments that I will always treasure.”  Upon receiving news that she and her recently retired husband John Pettit will soon be the proud grandparents of twins, Mary knew the time had come to pass the baton to the next generation of leadership at the Foundation, enabling her to fully enjoy this next chapter in their lives.

The Deering Estate – originally acquired by the State of Florida in cooperation with Miami-Dade County in 1985 – was one of Miami-Dade County Parks System’s best kept secrets; a nationally registered historic place and environmental preserve largely hidden behind its lush natural and historic rock wall perimeters in South Dade. Although open to the public, its program offerings were largely limited to environmental education, children’s camps, butterfly and bird walks, and tours of the historic homes.

“It was my great fortune to have been recruited to lead the Foundation shortly after William (Bill) Irvine took over as the Deering Estate’s Director,” added Pettit.  “We were like-minded leaders and Bill was a seasoned and highly respected Miami-Dade County Parks Director.  The core of the existing board members and Estate staff held a level of institutional equity that helped guide us as we enthusiastically joined together to usher in a much broader vision for public engagement, leveraging the diverse historic and environmental resources of the park.”

The Foundation was still very much in its infancy when Mary took the helm.  Her first order of business was to raise enough money to sustain the Foundation, and then to strongly build on it by more broadly engaging the participation and support of the community, enabling the Foundation to better deliver on its mission of providing needed resources to help preserve, protect and enhance the Deering Estate.

Mary had the foresight to recognize that the Deering Seafood Festival, then in its third year, had the potential to be the Deering Estate’s signature event, showcasing the Estate in its best possible light and incorporating all there is to love about South Florida.  With the help of Sheila Stieglitz, Public Relations Coordinator at the time, she embarked on a mission to revamp the festival, leading it to become one of South Florida’s most popular, award-winning festivals, attracting more than 9,000 people and engaging new members and visitors to the Estate.

The Foundation’s marketing and membership programs were retooled and membership support began to rise, and Mary added to the support staff by hiring Michelle Streit, a longtime colleague who shared Mary’s work ethic and deep relationships within the community. The Foundation’s Board of Directors grew to more than 30 members, with added support from a newly created Advisory Board of Trustees. 

“Collectively we all came together to help the Estate deliver on its vision to expand its cultural arts and educational programs, promoting broader engagement and increased service to the community,” said Pettit.  “We engaged new donors, partners and sponsors, obtained grants and other funds that enable us to seed the new programs and to materially restore and enhance the historic buildings and grounds.” 

Annual attendance to the park continued to rise, special events were being enjoyed by thousands, and in 2010 the Deering Estate joined the ranks of Miami-Dade County’s Cultural Advancement Grantees, a highly respected endorsement from the Cultural Arts Community. 

In 2012, a very spirited and philanthropic circle of women, the 100 Ladies of Deering, emerged from within the Foundation’s Board of Directors, under the leadership of Director Suzuyo Fox.  Inspired by the wave of Women’s Giving Circles around the world and the growing wealth and philanthropy of women, Fox agreed to chair its development, establishing structure, marketing and recruiting strategies.

“One of the most frequently asked questions from visitors to the Estate back then was ‘Why are the houses so empty?’” recalls Fox. The 100 Ladies of Deering undertook as its first priority to assist the Deering Estate in furnishing the historic homes on the property and to help expand the Estate’s art collection.  Through their philanthropy and efforts, combined with support from the Deering Estate, the Deering family and Vizcaya Museum & Gardens, today the historic homes are nearly fully furnished and the Estate’s collections and exhibits offer a 21st Century museum experience.

As the Foundation has grown, so too has the Estate and their staff under the leadership of Director Jennifer Tisthammer, who was promoted following Irvine’s retirement in 2014.  Tisthammer continues to expand the vision, significantly strengthening the management, curatorial and programming staff who deliver creative and quality daily programming to serve the community.    

“When you engage and surround yourself with great people, amazing things happen,” added Pettit. “The relationships that I have developed with the Deering family, along with the recruitment and development of staff, our volunteer Board of Directors, and the 100 Ladies of Deering are amongst my greatest achievements.  They care deeply about the Estate, take great pride in its mission and achievements and enjoy their service.  It has been their exemplary willingness to work hard in support of each other and our collective efforts as a TEAM, that has helped grow the Foundation and the Deering Estate to where it is today.

“I must acknowledge the incredible leadership and guidance I received from Foundation presidents Scott Silver, Walter Flores, Eric Haas, Dan Yglesias, David Marley Jr., David McDonald and the late Buff March-Bye, as well as the entire Board of Directors and Trustees during my tenure. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of this journey with them and am confident that I am leaving the Foundation better resourced and in very capable hands supporting its future. I also want to thank my family who all pitched in to support me every step of way, especially my husband John.  He was always happy to answer our calls to ‘find it, build it, fix it, or haul it,’ and was happy to simply hang out to keep us all laughing with his silly jokes.”


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2 Comments on "Deering Estate Foundation Announces Retirement of Executive Director Mary Pettit"

  1. Dear Mary – Just a note to THANK YOU (and John) for all of your hard work to bring the Foundation where it is today. They could not have found a better person You helped the Palmetto Business Association become the vital part of our community it is. I am sorry I have not done more to be of help but, have always been so busy with other organizations. I have resigned from everything since Al passed August 2014. I am now 90 and still busy with the shop. I just had heart surgery three weeks ago so have to go a little slower. Congratulations on becoming Grandma. I know you will be a great one. Say THANKS to John also for all of the support he has given you.
    Good Luck in all of your future endeavors and enjoy your grandchildren.
    Love and Prayers, Joyce Masso

  2. Mary,
    Congratulations, you did an awesome job in all your endeavors from my “babysitter” (HA) to executive director at Deering and now a grandmother (at which you will be the best), again wish you the best and hope to see when you visit North Carolina !!!!

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