November/December 2010 A Visit With

Saving trees and challenging young minds
If you’re a grownup wondering what to give the young children in your life this holiday season, John Donofrio has some ideas for presents that combine fun and learning. Briarpatch, his Millburn-based company, turns popular children’s books into award-winning puzzles and games so kids can enjoy their favorite stories in a new, interactive way.

When he’s not helping Madeline find lost puppies in Paris, racing uphill with Thomas the Engine, navigating the woods with Frog and Toad or helping Fancy Nancy decorate her room, Donofrio, who has a degree in environmental studies, helps to guide several New Jersey conservation groups. Here, he tells us how he combines these favorite things.

The environment, land preservation and toys — something had to come first. Were your parents park rangers? Were you born into the toy business?

Neither of the above. I was born into the printing business and figured that would be my life. I grew up in Rutherford. My dad had a printing company in New York and I started working there in high school. After two years of college at Fairleigh Dickinson, I dropped out and went to work full time.

Why did you drop out of college?
I was more interested in having some money in my pockets and I liked the printing industry.

The printing business is not conducted outdoors.
No, but even as a kid I loved the natural world. When my family vacationed in the Catskills, I always got away and went exploring on my own. I’ve been hiking, canoeing and camping all my life. As they say, you protect what you love. I’m on the board of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, which was started in 1981 as the Morris Land Conservancy. We have helped towns secure more than $192 million in funding for conservation projects and preserved more than 16,500 acres. I’m also a trustee of the New Jersey chapter of The Nature Conservancy, an older national organization that has protected more than 56,000 acres in New Jersey. Our current focus is on native species protection and natural areas at risk. It’s an ongoing challenge.

And somehow you got an environmental studies degree from Ramapo College?
Yeah, after doing time in the printing business for more than six years, I figured I’d better go back to school. I had the idea I’d be a nature photojournalist. I worked until 1978, then went to school full time from 1978 to 1981. Ramapo had a great program in environmental studies. I edited and produced that department’s first newsletter. Graduated in 1981. I had an idea that I’d become a photojournalist nature photographer, but it didn’t work out.

Don’t tell me. Back to the printing business?
No, I worked as an ad copywriter for science textbooks at Prentice Hall. We used to say it’s a great place to work if your parents can afford to send you there. While there, I got a call from a friend saying he needed someone to run their printing company.

So yes … back to the printing business. Then I left and started my own business, mostly printing manuals for sales representatives. I did that from 1984 to 1994. And I got into music. I was playing drums in a band at a summer solstice festival at Pyramid Mountain park when I met this great woman with sparkling eyes, Martine Redman. She was the music director at Grace Episcopal Church in Jersey City. She asked our band to come and play there. She was doing some very cool, progressive things with church music. It was a vibrant and diverse congregation. And we just clicked. We were married in 1992. Turns out that Marty, in addition to being an ardent conservationist, was also in the toy business.

Read more about the start of Donofrio’s game-and-puzzle-making company Briarpatch in the current issue of New Jersey Countryside Magazine, available now at bookstores, on newsstands and by subscription. Click here to get one free bonus issue and save more than 80% on a subscription.