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World traveler's short trip earns National Aquarium lifetime pass

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Campus Hills resident Charles Kloch, a retired 70-year-old banker, began traveling before he could walk, when his father took the family on vacation to Canada. He has no intention of stopping.

He has travelled to 105 countries — not counting the year he spent in Germany after he graduated from Loyola College to find out what life was like for an immigrant. He has taken 44 cruises and racked up 18 trips to Europe, 11 to South America, seven to Africa and 18 to Mexico. He has been mugged in Columbia, walked on a glacier in New Zealand and seen a church in Montreal with 100 steps that supplicants ascend on their knees.

His first wife bailed after the second trip to Europe; she couldn't take the traveling. He met his current wife and traveling companion, Jody, when they were both visiting Beijing 25 years ago. "She'll go anywhere," he said.

He blames his traveling gene on his father, George Kloch, an accountant who used his annual two week vacations to take his wife and three children on the road. "In 1953, he drove us all the way across the country to the West Coast and back, and we stopped to see Mount Rushmore and Yellowstone and the Petrified Forest," he said. Two years later, his father drove the family all the way to Acapulco, Mexico. In 1957, it was Mexico City and the Grand Canyon, all in two weeks.

Kloch managed a much shorter trip 30 years ago that is just as memorable as some of his longer jaunts.

That's when he became the National Aquarium, Baltimore's first visitor.

As such, he is the only living person with a lifetime pass to the Charm City landmark.

He earned the distinction after leaving his then wife and two young children sleeping in their beds Aug. 8, 1981. Kloch slipped out of the house shortly after midnight and headed for the grand opening of the aquarium later that morning.

Always up for an adventure, he had asked the family to join him, but there were no takers.

When he arrived at the Inner Harbor, he discovered that he was the line.

The area was deserted, save for a couple he saw engrossed in each other, and they weren't interested in fish.

"I wondered for a minute if I had the wrong day," he said. But by 2 a.m., somebody else joined him; and by 6 a.m., there were a few dozen people.

That line ended up being 8,400 people long. As the first visitor, Kloch was honored during a small ceremony, given $50 in aquarium gift shop merchandise and a membership that allowed him to visit the aquarium free of charge the rest of his life.

He was interviewed by radio and television stations and The Sun papers. "It was fun to realize I was always going to be a part of the aquarium's history," he said.

Ony three people were given lifetime memberships, he said. The other two were President Ronald Reagan and MayorWilliam Donald Schaefer.

Years later, working downtown for Equitable Trust and later for Commercial Credit, Kloch frequented the aquarium during his lunch hour.

He was walking past the Courthouse one day when he saw Schaefer and approached him.

"You know we have something in common," he told the mayor.

Schaefer wasn't impressed, he said. "He probably had other things on his mind."

After Kloch retired, he'd visit the aquarium two or three times a year.

Nowadays, he doesn't go as frequently, which accounts for the problem he had last year when his membership card didn't get him in the door. Nobody at the gate realized there was such a thing as a lifetime membership.

He thinks because the word "Lifetime" was simply typed on the card, and it didn't look valid.

"It took more than 20 minutes before they would let me in," he said, noting he has had no trouble being admitted since then.

Although admission to the aquarium may be free, "it costs too damn much to park," he said, pointing out that street meters are $2 a hour. On the plus side, "they bumped the meters so high, there are a lot more spaces available."

Parking hasn't deterred many. The aquarium is preparing to welcome its 45 millionth visitor, according to spokeswoman Jen Bloomer.

And the facility has grown since Kloch nabbed his lifetime membership. It was one building on Pier 3 in 1981. Now it's two piers and two buildings: including the Marine Mammal Pavilion; the Animal Planet Australia Exhibit; the 4-D Immersion Theater, which incorporates sight, sound, smell and touch; and the rotating exhibit space that currently features jelly fish.

In addition, the National Aquarium, Baltimore took over the National Aquarium, Washington, D.C., so it oversees two campuses now.

Meanwhile, more than 12,000 animals, including the two puffin chicks born recently, are never dull, said Bloomer. "There is always something new to see, always a reason for coming back."

When Kloch does come back to the aquarium, he always finds it interesting, he said, and not just because of the improvements and additions that have been made over the past 30 years.

"It's just such a relaxing feeling standing and watching thousands of fish gliding by," he said. "It's nice."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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