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Remembering the National Aquarium’s first champion

Published April 19, 2011

From Kathy Sher, Deputy Director of External Affairs

On the day after the passing of our beloved Governor William Donald Schaefer, how could I not reflect on how he impacted all of us who work at the Aquarium?

If it was not for his vision, constant quest for excellence and unyielding demands for “doing the best you can,” I’m not sure our great Aquarium would have been built. 

I began my career at the Aquarium while Governor Schaefer was mayor of Baltimore. I could tell stories for hours, but thought I’d share just a few favorites today.
Though the Aquarium opened to the public on August 8, 1981, exactly three years after the groundbreaking, Aquarium staff and board had actually promised then-Mayor Schaefer it would open in July. On one spring day in 1981, the Mayor called to get his usual progress report on the opening day plans. Someone had to tell the demanding and volatile mayor the bad news that the Aquarium opening was going to be delayed. There in one of the Aquarium’s conference rooms, a small crowd of staff members were gathered around the telephone while the mayor was placed on hold. The phone flew back and forth between curators and directors, and, finally, a heroic Bill Flynn, our deputy director, grabbed the phone and said, “I’ll do it—what’s the worst that can happen?” With that he picked up the phone and delivered the unwelcome news, which resulted in a thorough tongue lashing for poor Bill! But the date was changed to August 8, and the rest is history.

It was the delayed opening that led to his infamous dip in the seal pool, the second memory I’d like to share. As director of marketing at the time, I worked closely with the mayor’s public relations team, who loved the idea of a stunt to help explain the delayed opening, but worried that Ike the gray seal might charge our dear mayor, or worse, bite him. I was standing right by the seal pool when Mr. Schaefer jumped into the water with a mermaid and with Ike the gray seal glowering nearby. It turned out that poor Ike was so startled by the hundreds of cameras and media people, the gorgeous mermaid on a rock in his pool and the plunging mayor, that he swam to the edge of the pool and never moved from the spot. 

There is just one final memory that I cannot resist. When the building opened on that glorious August 8, then-Mayor Schaefer received a true set of keys to the building. Of course, none of us ever expected that he would use them or visit when the building wasn’t open to the public. We were so surprised when, one summer night, the mayor, wanting to take his own private tour to see his favorite exhibit (the Coral Reef), used his key, opened the doors and peacefully strolled the site that he had envisioned years before the Aquarium was ever built.

William Donald hadn’t made many trips down to the Aquarium in recent years, but he still had his keys and was always welcome.

William Donald Schaefer, we at the Aquarium owe you a huge debt of gratitude for your vision--a priceless gift to Baltimore City. As our staff and volunteers come together to celebrate 30 years in the Inner Harbor this year, it is bittersweet to reflect on your life and legacy as a part of our celebration. Today, we tip our hats to you, our beloved Mayor Schaefer.

The video below was created last fall as we kicked off our 30th anniversary celebration. You’ll see that you can’t celebrate 30 years of the Aquarium without celebrating William Donald Schaefer. It's because of his dedication that we have 30 great years to celebrate.

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