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The landmark Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens will thrive under a new director's green thumb, officials predict.

Frank Telewski, 35, a professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson, has been selected from a field of 60 applicants to oversee what many hope will be an exciting new chapter for the 90-year-old facility.

Telewski's hiring to the upgraded $36,000-a-year post follows a 10-month nationwide search.

"I've loved plants and trees since I was knee-high to a grasshopper," Telewski said Tuesday in a telephone conversation from his Arizona home.

Telewski, a New Jersey native, has spent the last seven years as assistant professor of dendrochronology (the study of tree aging and stress) and tree physiology at the university. He also has taught in the school's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

He said he looks forward to returning to the day-to-day world of greenhouse management.

"I don't mind getting my hands in the soil," he said, recalling the first mini-greenhouse he built as a child.

"Plants have always been my first love and I look forward to applying my academic background to the job of running a first-class botanical garden," he said.

Telewski (pronounced Tel-ev-ski) holds a doctorate degree in botany. His hiring marks a return, of sorts, to the early days of botanical gardens, when John F. Cowell, an internationally renowned botanist, ran the South Buffalo conservatory.

Under Cowell's direction, the gardens' collections attracted widespread interest, but following his death in 1915, the facility lost momentum, was plagued by money problems and needed structural repairs.

The situation was made worse by the Great Depression, two World Wars and a shroud of soot from the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant, which made growing plants inside the glass structures nearly impossible.

While still drawing thousands of visitors a year, the gardens, then known as the South Park Conservatory, lost its status as one of great indoor plant-and-tree preserves in the United States.

Basic maintenance of the domes and their flora took precedence over efforts to expand and catalog the collection. While many of Cowell's successors were schooled in horticulture and botany, more often than not financial constraints forced them into the role of caretakers.

Since Erie County took over the gardens in 1981, more than $1 million has been spent remodeling and upgrading the physical plant. In 1990, $550,000 is earmarked for repair of the giant steel-beamed domes, with an additional $350,000 to be spent on re-designing the cactus room to provide an improved view.

Mary Jane Mills, president of the Erie County Botanical Gardens Society, said the gardens have a bright future. "We hope to not only return the gardens to their original splendor, but to go beyond it. The hiring of an experienced director will go a long way to help us achieve our dreams for the gardens," she said.

County Executive Gorski said he is pleased the county's search yielded such a qualified candidate. "He was the unanimous choice of the search panel and that's a significant result. From what I know of him he'll bring a strong academic background and new enthusiasm to the gardens," Gorski said.

Telewski's hiring also brought very favorable comments from Gretchen Toles of the Friends of Olmsted Park. She said she was impressed by his many ideas for improving the Gardens and its programs.

"He was extremely energetic and well-prepared," Mrs. Toles said, noting Telewski had taken the time to tour the Gardens and other local parks before coming in for his interview.

County Parks Commissioner Joseph X. Martin called the new director "very well-rounded and enthusiastic."

"I think he'll do a great job running the gardens, creating new educational programs and hustling for grant money. He'll be a real jack-of-all-trades for us," Martin said.

Telewski said one of his main goals will be to increase the gardens educational outreach to the community. He said everyone, children and adults alike, can learn some basic environmental lessons at the gardens.

"We're at a point in time where it's critical for us to understand the relationship between plant life and the environment," Telewski said. "Through the gardens we can expose people to the fact that by cutting down rain forests and polluting the soil we're only hurting ourselves."

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