George Denny was a passionate outdoorsman, perhaps never so happy as when he was on his sailboat or hiking in the New England woods. When he bought a 6,000-acre ranch in northern California in the mid-1980s, he also became an avid conservationist, showing how it works to prioritize ecological benefits while supporting people with a successful agricultural operation.

It was a natural fit when George eventually became part of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) community. He joined TPL’s National Board of Directors in 1990 and served as its chairman from 2003 to 2010, steering the organization to step into its purpose. His belief in TPL’s mission and his commitment to public service were evident to everyone he met.

George, who passed away on February 16 at age 78, was not only a decisive leader, but a friend and mentor to many at TPL, and his loss is felt deeply across the staff and volunteers that comprise the community. Former TPL staff and board members who worked alongside George remember his warm and generous spirit, along with his keen insight and business sense. They credit him with helping to move the organization in a direction that ensured TPL’s ability to expand its impact, and to prosper.

Diane Regas, TPL’s president and CEO, praised his steady hand on the national board and his outsized impact. “Trust for Public Land benefitted from George’s commitment to conservation and his determination that future generations enjoy all the benefits of the natural world,” she said. “He touched so many people here at TPL through his warmth and wit and vision.”

His business acumen was honed during a long career at Bain & Company, which he joined after graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Business School. He later founded his own investment group, Halpern, Denny & Co., in Boston.

George took on creating a sustainable organization that would continue to benefit the hundreds of communities where TPL works. “The thing that was really surprising about George was that he had such warmth and yet he also possessed an incisive business intelligence and an ability to cut through issues to get to the heart of the matter,” recalled George Bell, a close friend and former neighbor of Denny in Brookline, Massachusetts, who also served on TPL’s board with him.

George was tireless in his role as chair—frequently visiting TPL’s dozens of offices across the country. He took great care in understanding what makes TPL work and had the courage and foresight to lead toward opportunities to strengthen the organization’s financial standing

Early in George’s tenure, TPL had relied heavily on land transaction fees for its operating budget. But he believed TPL needed to do things differently, recollects Whitney Hatch, who worked for the organization as director of the New England region when George served on the board.

“George realized that consistent financial performance under the fee model was very hard to control,” says Hatch, who later served on the national board himself. “So he did a ton of analysis—looking into the books and operations of each of our regions—and said, ‘We are a charity, why don’t we act like one?’” Undeterred by the amount of change his vision required, George created a Power Point presentation to make his case, convincing staff to significantly increase fundraising in support of TPL’s mission.

Jeff Danter, TPL’s chief program officer, said George’s impact on TPL’s current position—in which staffing levels, operating budgets, and park and conservation projects are at all-time highs—cannot be overstated. “He basically showed that our business model would fail and TPL would go out of business,” he said. “We launched the Power of Place campaign as a direct result of George’s work. He fundamentally changed the trajectory that TPL was on.”

Under George’s leadership, TPL achieved a string of landmark conservation projects, many of which were in the Northeast, not far from his Boston-area home.

In Massachusetts, TPL helped protect 112 acres surrounding Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, which were threatened by development. In New Hampshire, TPL played a decisive role in the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters project, which preserved 171,000 acres of working forest. And in Maine, TPL negotiated an agreement to buy 6,015 acres next to Baxter State Park, including Katahdin Lake, realizing Percival Baxter’s original vision for the park that now bears his name.

It was his property in California, Goose Valley Ranch, that sparked his enthusiasm for land protection and stewardship. “He was a diehard East Coast guy,” said Bell, “but buying the ranch in California, and then rejuvenating the farm and thinking about the potential for wildlife habitat—I think that made a real difference in his appreciation of the importance of conservation.”

Still, he was equally enthusiastic about TPL’s work in developing urban parks. “George was committed to the full range of TPL’s mission, from inner city to wilderness,” said Will Rogers, who was president of TPL from 1998 to 2018. “He understood just how important the urban work was to the communities we were touching, and he also realized there wasn’t any other organization doing that work.”

For many, it was George’s magnetic personality—at once big-hearted, funny and energetic—that will long be remembered.

He was preceded as chair by Chris Sawyer of Atlanta, who commented that George was uniquely “equipped to deal with the stormy economy that was approaching…and therefore I would be leaving TPL in the best hands possible. While few others probably thought about that, I did, and George was perfect for that time. I miss him, but Julie and I are so grateful that he and [his wife], the terrific Leigh, were and are important parts of our lives. A great fellow.”

Page Knudsen Cowles, who succeeded him as chair of the national board, recalled his kindness after her father’s passing.

“He graciously agreed to serve an additional year as chair to allow me time to get beyond my father’s death in the spring of 2009,” Cowles shared. “He was a generous and patient leader, always ready with good advice and sage counsel. I feel so lucky to have been able to work closely with him during our time at TPL.”

TPL’s staff also experienced George’s remarkable generosity. “As a new leader at TPL in 2011, I benefitted from his time and his knowledge,” Danter said. “He spent considerable time with me and helped me craft my vision for what TPL could be.”

Roy Richards Jr., who overlapped with George on the national board, says he occasionally mused about the young George Denny, whose personality would have foreshadowed the leader to emerge.

“I have often thought about what it would have been like to be in the first grade with him,” Richards said. “He would have been really smart, pretty awkward, always in trouble with the teacher, and the kid everybody hoped to be friends with. I was lucky enough to make the crossing from Bermuda with him a few years ago on his boat Restive and, in his sixties, he was still that way.

“To TPL,” Richards continued, “he brought the loves-saving-land idealism that we all share, together with the common sense pragmatism appropriate to the moment. But what he also brought was that goofy grin, that awkward boyish charm, and the constant impression that he might be the smartest kid in the room but was keeping it to himself. We were all made better for having known him.”

Last fall, at a TPL board meeting in Chicago, George attended the event as an emeritus member. Hatch, who was then stepping down from the national board, remembers George’s moving remarks, his wife Leigh at his side. “He gave a rousing endorsement of TPL’s work and said how proud he was of the organization,” he recalls. “He was just a lovely person.”

We are deeply grateful for the time George Denny gave to TPL.