Ray Oladapo-Johnson is Wave Hill’s new leader

With more than 20 years of hard work, life experience, it can land you a dream job


Ray Oladapo-Johnson was jetlagged and unable to sleep in his summer home in Tisvilde, Denmark. It was 8 p.m. for him — but outside his windows, it was the middle of the night. His wife and kids were sound asleep.

It was at that moment he looked at his phone and was stunned what he found there: An offer making him the next president and executive director at Wave Hill.

And soon, he’ll be on his way to the Bronx — old Riverdale, to be precise — bringing more than 20 years of horticulture experience, and a plan to steer and manage Wave Hill’s operations while carrying out the popular attraction’s longstanding mission.

That mission? To celebrate Wave Hill’s legacy of gardens and landscapes. Preserve magnificent views. Explore human connections to natural programs through horticulture, education and arts.

Oladapo-Johnson succeeds Karen Meyerhoff, who has led Wave Hill since 2015. During that time, Wave Hill weathered through the coronavirus pandemic, using technology to extend its reach beyond the Bronx through electronic hybrid opportunities like Zoom videoconferencing.

Meyerhoff retires after eight years of service, looking forward to “pursuing creative interests, traveling, and visiting with her family.”

Oladapo-Johnson knows he has big shoes to fill.

When it came to choosing a new leader, Ray Oladapo-Johnson stood out as someone with deep knowledge and love of horticulture, a commitment to inclusion, and a decades-long admiration for Wave Hill, said board co-chairs Ezra Borut and Sarah Gund.

A board vote was the last step in choosing Oladapo-Johnson. However, it was a search committee comprised of Wave Hill board members, staffer and other stakeholders who scouted the nation for a replacement and found him. It was a six-month process that generated three finalists out of 300 applicants.

“I am deeply honored to have this opportunity to play a part in linking Wave Hill’s past and future in the present,” Oladapo-Johnson said, in a release, “honoring its roots and appeal while building a diverse community that can carry the organization into the future.”

One of the first things Oladapo-Johnson plans to do is simply getting to know everybody, inside and out. It’s important to him to understand the Wave Hill community. It is one of his responsibilities to show how Wave Hill is perceived as a resource to the community.

While he might have been overseas when he got the call, Oladapo-Johnson is no stranger to New York City. Most recently, he was park operations vice president to Friends of the High Line, which maintains and operates the old High Line elevated railroad near Hudson Yards that has since become one of New York City’s unique and extraordinary urban landscapes.

The elevated linear park welcomes nearly 22,000 visitors daily — at least before Covid-19.

When he started in 2017, Oladapo-Johnson’s responsibilities were everything anyone could imagine — from horticulture, to engineering, to visitor services, safety, and events.

A visit can be around 45 minutes. And Oladapo-Johnson would ask, “How many people do you think visit High Line on a sunny weekend, before Covid?”

High Line welcomed 8.3 million visitors in 2019, which the non-profit organization counts and reports to the city’s park agency.

“That’s just how many we managed to count,” Oladapo-Johnson said.

The number has fluctuated as of recent, but Friends of the High Line spokeswoman Janelle Grace says pre-pandemic numbers are returning, although she couldn’t provide specifics.

This will not the first time Oladapo-Johnson has worked in the Bronx, however. He spent eight years at the Wildlife Conservation Society as curator and a horticulture director. The society operates not only the Bronx Zoo, but Central Park Zoo, the New York Aquarium, Prospect Park Zoo, and the Queens Zoo.

Horticulture is “really important,” Oladapo-Johnson said, “especially when you look at what happened to us in the last three years during Covid.”

Oladapo-Johnson is a true New Yorker, born in Nigeria and spending most of his life living in different countries.

His mother was a diplomat from Nigeria. His father was an airline pilot who hailed from Trinidad and Tobago.

In fact, there was a time as a youngster Oladapo-Johnson considered following in his father’s footsteps. His mother, however, said no. Not because of fear or missing him as he flew to other countries.

“She didn’t want me to follow in a traditional motivational footpath,” he said, with a laugh. “But you know, it didn’t happen. I do have a romance with aviation. I love flying.”

But Oladapo-Johnson began finding horticulture more peaceful. But to explain why he wanted to be a horticulturist is something that requires some time, because it’s a long story.

“I’m one of those people lucky enough to manage to do exactly what I studied in college,” he said. “I’m passionate about plants and studying plants.”

Oladapo-Johnson graduated in 1997 from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn with a master’s degree in urban planting and landscape architecture. He first visited Wave Hill some 20 years ago, and was in awe. He could not express the words to describe what he saw there on the eastern banks of the Hudson River. He could only point out the window of the Wave Hill House — which was built in the early 1940s after William Lewis Morris and his wife Mary Elizabeth Babcock purchased land in Riverdale in 1836.

Eventually, the house was leased to notable residents such as young Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The late Queen Elizabeth II’s mother herself stayed there in 1954 during her time in New York.

Even better, it seemed so many forgot about life outside Wave Hill. Visitors sat on the lawn talking with each other — not a cell phone in sight — while surrounded by the beauty of flowers and all the green space.

“It’s just amazing,” he said.

But Oladapo-Johnson  knew he would need to work his way to be part of it one day — somehow.

“I’m still processing this,” he said. “I’m pinching myself and saying, ‘Wake up, wake up,’ but this is real. And these things happen. But you got to work for it.”

And Oladapo-Johnson’s advice to anyone hoping to follow in his footsteps?

“Stay focused, if you believe in yourself. And believe in what you want to do. I really believe in this place.”

Ray Oladapo-Johnson, Wave Hill, president, horticulture, Karen Meyerhoff,