Ex-official at zoo led plan for Woodlawn


Robert E. Harden, Jr., 59, former chief operating officer of the Toledo Zoo who later as executive director of Historic Woodlawn Cemetery began turning the staid organization into a destination for birdwatchers, naturalists, and historians, died Friday at Hospice of Northwest Ohio, Perrysburg.

Mr. Harden died from pancreatic cancer, his wife, Tammy, said.

In his 18-month tenure at Woodlawn, Mr. Harden began a master plan to capitalize on growth potential for the 130-acre site that is the final resting place for many of Toledo's prominent industrialists, artists, soldiers, and other notables, said Mike Young, a cemetery trustee who worked with Mr. Harden on producing a book detailing its history.

"He had several projects going on," Mr. Young said. "He brought a lot to the cemetery and he was turning things around."

Mr. Harden was hired in May, 2009, after working as a real-estate developer in his own business and developing condominiums along Lake Erie near Port Clinton. He began Harden Development LLC after he resigned from the Toledo Zoological Society during a shake-up and the forced retirement of its executive director.

Mr. Young said the cemetery board was impressed with Mr. Harden's business management skills, which were put to use modernizing an operation that was reluctant to embrace change. He adopted a plan that would set the tone for the future of the 134-year-old cemetery.

"That's where we were very fortunate to pick up Bob," Mr. Young said. "It really started paying off for Woodlawn Cemetery."

He planned events, such as those focused on bird watching, that would draw visitors to Woodlawn, one of the area's prominent arboretums. "We're as much as a park as we are a cemetery" and Mr. Harden was focused on expanding Woodlawn's awareness in the community, Mr. Young said.

He started a program for Boy Scouts who needed Eagle Scout projects by having them restore grave markers, Mr. Young said.

Mr. Harden, born Nov. 27, 1951, in Camden, N.J., was a graduate of Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., where he received a bachelor's degree in management and of Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he earned a master's in business administration.

While in school he worked for his father's construction business in Philadelphia. After graduating he became corporate secretary for the New Jersey Bankers Association. He then became assistant executive director and the executive director of the National Funeral Directors Association before moving to Toledo.

His 14 years with the funeral directors association gave him insight into "the other side of the house" when dealing with the funeral industry, Mr. Young said.

B.J. Rorick, outgoing president of Woodlawn's board of trustees, said Mr. Harden was quick to pick up on Woodlawn's needs.

"He was probably the gentlest, most wonderful man we could have had at the cemetery," Mr. Rorick said.

"He was a beautiful diplomat and was great interacting with the people and the customers, or families. That's something we haven't seen in years."

Mr. Harden is survived by his wife, Tammy, mother Ruth Harden, son, James W. Harden, daughter Sarah E. Harden, one granddaughter, and a brother, William Harden.

Visitation will be from 2 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at Witzler-Shank Funeral Home, Perrysburg.

The funeral is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday at Zoar Lutheran Church, Perrysburg.

Memorials are suggested to Hospice of Northwest Ohio or the Toledo Area Humane Society.

Contact Jim Sielicki at: jsielicki@theblade.com, or 419-724-6050