Life sometimes takes unexpected turns. Or it did for Jackson Andrews, who began his working life as a cab driver and this month retired after 32 years as an influential leader at the Tennessee Aquarium.
"It's been the adventure of a lifetime," Andrews said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Andrews, who has spent the last six years as chief operating officer, helped lead the aquarium to its current status as one of the top aquariums in the country. He remembers the opening of both main exhibits -- the River Journey in the early 1990s and the Ocean Journey in 2005.
The aquarium was originally built as an economic strategy, he said, to attract visitors who would spend money on hotels, food and shopping. Now, approximately 27 million visitors later, he laughs about worrying the plan wouldn't work.
"I remember looking around and it didn't seem like to me that we were going to have very many people," Andrews said. But he wasn't taking into account that most people travel during the summer months.
"By the end of the first year, more than a million people had visited. And just a couple years later, we thought we should probably build another building with ocean animals. So we did that."
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Andrews said that, as a young man, his dream was to work aboard an ocean research vessel. Aquariums seemed far less interesting than the ocean itself.
"I didn't see the point," he said in a press release from the aquarium. "I was much more interested in what marine animals were doing in the wild. If I wanted to see fish, I could just get in the ocean."
Out of school, Andrews worked for a while as a cab driver, but had started getting frustrated with the work when he landed his first marine science job at a small, family-owned aquarium in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. From there, he was hired and spent the next 13 years at the Baltimore Aquarium (now the National Aquarium).
During those years, he met the Baltimore Aquarium's then-deputy executive director, William Flynn, who was later recruited as the first president and CEO of the Tennessee Aquarium. Flynn later brought Andrews on staff at the Tennessee Aquarium as the director of operations and husbandry.
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According to the release, Andrews developed a reputation at the Aquarium over the years for his standard of excellence in all aspects of the operation -- his highest expectations reserved for the care of the animals. Dr. Chris Keller was one of Andrews' earliest hires, brought in to ensure top quality care.
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"No matter how costly it was, Jackson would find a way to do it," Keller said in the release. "Unlike a lot of facilities, where administrators are looking at the bottom line, he always saw through that and realized that the bottom line is the animals and the rest of it would follow from that."
If all goes according to plan, Andrews said by phone, the next chapter of his life will involve lots of travel. His family, grandchildren included, all live in Chattanooga. And the celebrations have already begun.
"In about two weeks, the whole gang of us is going to Hawaii for about 10 days. Then in May, I'll be going to France for a while," he said by phone. "And that's about as far as I've gotten so far."
Contact Jennifer McNally at @email@example.com.