Posts Tagged 'William Donald Schaefer'

Baltimore’s Grand Experiment – The “Fish Tank” 32 Years Later

government affairs and policy update

*Special thanks to Senator Ben Cardin, whose idea served as the inspiration for this blog post. 

Baltimore’s National Aquarium celebrated its 32nd birthday on Thursday – officially unveiling the new $13 million Blacktip Reef exhibit in a style that invoked the iconic image of William Donald Schaefer wading into the seal tank while wearing a 1920s bathing suit and carrying a rubber duck on August 8th, 1981. Thirty-two years later, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli risked the shark-infested waters for Thursday’s ribbon cutting, officially ushering in a new era of exhibits at the “crown jewel of the Inner Harbor.”

mayor anniversary photo

As anniversaries often do, the commemoration of another successful year offers an opportunity to look back at where things began and how far they have come. It is easy to forget that when the concept for an aquarium in Baltimore’s then-sparse waterfront was first proposed there were those who vehemently opposed its founding and the public support that helped fund its construction. Yet since breaking ground in 1978, the Aquarium has proven that it’s not the floundering fishbowl people imagined, but rather a deep sea of success. Nearly 50 million people have walked through our doors. Of them, 2.5 million Maryland students have been inspired by the 16,000 animals from more than 650 different species that call the Aquarium home. The National Aquarium remains the number one tourist attraction in Maryland with nearly 1.4 million visitors every year. And a recently completed economic impact study  concluded that the Aquarium is responsible for $314 million worth of economic impact and an additional $19 million fiscal impact on the City and State every year.

Given this tremendous contribution to the state, it is almost hard to believe that the National Aquarium was once decried as “frivolous” and just one of the Mayor’s “pets” during the contentious debate over the bond referendum to help fund the Aquarium in 1976. Critics worried that attendance would be low and the resulting reduced revenue would not be enough for the experiment to be self-sustaining (in fact, the Aquarium only planned to host 600,000 people – instead it saw 1.6 million visitors in its first year). Finally, opponents argued that the presence of such a project would not be “essential” to the City of Baltimore.

While I was not alive to witness this debate or Mayor Schaefer’s infamous plunge, a picture of him tipping his straw hat, eyes staring up at the glistening glass pavilion he spent nearly a decade bringing to life hangs on my office wall. It reminds me on a daily basis that, national designation or not, we are still Baltimore’s Aquarium[1]. It was Mayor Schaefer and his Commissioner of Housing and Community Development, Robert Embry, who first dreamed up the idea to attract tourism to the Inner Harbor with an aquarium in the early 1970s. It was Baltimore City residents in 1976 who voted to fund the Aquarium’s construction via a bond referendum. And it was Baltimore’s native son, former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, who led Congress to designate the new facility the “national aquarium” in 1979.

A day after Mayor Schaefer took his dive with an 800-pound seal named Ike, the Baltimore Sun opined: “On Pratt Street yesterday were crowds of people where crowds never existed before.” So here is to another 32 years. Another 50 million visitors. Another 2.5 million Maryland students. Thousands more breathtaking animals to visit. And hundreds of millions more economic and fiscal benefit to the City and State.

Happy birthday, National Aquarium! Apart from crab cakes and the Orioles, I can’t think of another symbol that is more “essential” to the City of Baltimore.


[1] The land and the buildings are owned by the City of Baltimore. The City of Baltimore funded most of the Aquarium’s $21.3 million construction cost. Other major sources include: $7.5 million from City capital funds generated by the sale of Friendship (now Baltimore-Washington International) Airport to the State of Maryland; another $7.5 million from the 1976 bond issue referendum; and $2.5 million from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Commerce Department. The private sector contributed about $1 million.

National Aquarium intern and Towson University student, Kelsey Fielder, contributed greatly to the research and writing of this post. 

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Remembering the National Aquarium’s first champion

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.

Honoring the Aquarium’s ‘hero’

Yesterday, the City of Baltimore honored its most beloved mayor and former Maryland governor, William Donald Schaefer with the unveiling of a statue to memorialize his distinguished political career in Maryland. The statue lives in the middle of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which is fitting since Schaefer’s most notable accomplishment was the transformation of the Inner Harbor from an industrial shipping area to a multi-million dollar tourist attraction and the gem of Baltimore.

The National Aquarium was one of the first additions to the Inner Harbor. In the mid-1970s Mayor Schaefer conceived and championed the idea of an aquarium as a vital component of the redevelopment. William Donald Schaefer is truly the Aquarium’s hero because if wasn’t for him, the National Aquarium may not exist today. Dozens of staff members and volunteers, as well as the Aquarium’s first board president, Frank Gunther, attended the ceremony yesterday to pay tribute to the man who brought our Aquarium to life.

Schaefer’s idea for an aquarium may have been his best idea for the City of Baltimore. In 1976, residents supported the Aquarium by voting for it on a bond referendum, and the groundbreaking for the facility took place August 8, 1978.  The Aquarium’s world-class status was recognized by the United States Congress, which granted the facility national status. The National Aquarium in Baltimore opened to the public exactly three years later on August 8, 1981. Today the Aquarium is huge economic driver for the city and is the most visited destination at the Inner Harbor.

Schaefer is also known for his hilarious dip in the Aquarium’s seal pool, which has turned out to be his most famous photo op! The mayor  lost a bet with a developer who said the National Aquarium would not open on schedule. When the initial date passed, the mayor put on his bathing garb, grabbed a Donald Duck squeaky, and jumped into the seal pool that used to be outside of the Aquarium. The pictures live on in Aquarium history. Many see Schaefer as he is represented in the beautiful new statue, but at the Aquarium, this how we like to remember our hero:

Classic Mayor Schaefer blog


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