Published: Dec. 1, 2015 By

Master of Joy

Brian Vogt

Brian Vogt (Class’81)

In a hyper scientific age, Brian Vogt (Class’81) could be the poster child for a life enriched by the humanities.

The first in his immediate family to attend college, Vogt took his mother’s advice when he got to CU-Boulder: He studied what he loved. That happened to be classical antiquity — ancient Greece and Rome.

“Professor Hope Hamilton told me that Latin would turn a black-and-white world into technicolor,” says Vogt, 57, who today is president and CEO of the Denver Botanic Gardens, one of North America’s most visited public gardens. “…What a gift that was.”

While at CU he spent a year in England studying classical languages, philosophy and political thought. He’d looked into going to Egypt, “but they were at war at the time,” he says.

“I said, ‘Where do you have a classics program?’ They said ‘Lancaster and Tel Aviv.’ Tel Aviv would have been great — but they were at war at the time.”

The son of elected officials in Arapahoe County — Vogt’s father was sheriff in the 1960s, his mother treasurer in the early 1980s — he was offered work in Washington, D.C., after graduation. There he ran a series of federal youth volunteer programs. Public service became a theme for him, too.

Vogt later served in three cabinet-level jobs under Colorado Gov. Bill Owens, including director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development — “he just kept me very busy” — and spent 18 years with the South Metro Chamber of Commerce, 14 as president.

“Young, cheap and eager, I ended up doing every job,” he says of his chamber days. “By the time I was 29 or 30, they made me president.”

While there, Vogt led the successful effort to found, in 2000, the city of Centennial, Colo., an undertaking he calls “a massive civics lesson” and “the highlight of my career at the chamber, maybe my entire career.”

“We had 3,000 volunteers,” he says. “Everybody was thinking big-picture, long-term.”

He tries to do the same at the Gardens, which has more than 32,000 plants.

Since his arrival, it has achieved a series of record-attendance years, surpassing one million annual visitors for the first time. With 1.4 million visitors in 2014, it was the most-visited public garden on the continent, followed by the U.S. Botanical Garden in Washington.

“When I’m at the gardens, I’m not thinking about the five-year plan,” he says. “I’m thinking about the 50-year plan or the hundred-year plan, the 150-year plan… what makes an institution endure.”

Studying the classics tends to foster appreciation for the long view.

“You realize, and it’s very humbling, that we’re not the be‑all and end‑all,” Vogt says. “Our forebears did amazing things that made our current world possible, both good and ill.”

In studying what most appealed to him, rather than what he expected to become a career, Vogt says he learned “how to feel joy.”

“If you experience joy in your education,” he says, “you’re probably more likely to experience joy in other aspects of your life.”

Photography courtesy Brian Vogt