When Nicholas Brown was appointed in 1983 to take the helm of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, more than a few aquarium industry veterans were puzzled by the selection.

A scion of the wealthy Brown family of Rhode Island, retired Navy captain, avid sailor and Renaissance man, Mr. Brown was an admittedly unconventional choice to head Baltimore's seven-story "world of water," then less than 3 years old.

What set him apart most is that he lacked the academic credentials held by other zoo and aquarium directors.

The reigning pooh-bahs of the aquarium world were flabbergasted, said John Prescott, former head of the New England Aquarium.

"The reaction was: 'Capt. Nick Brown? Who's he? Can you believe it? The trustees of the National Aquarium in Baltimore picked a Navy captain!' "

Even the aquarium's incoming chairman at the time, Neal Borden, was surprised to discover how little Nick Brown actually knew about aquatic life.

"What he really knew about fish," Mr. Borden recalled recently, "is how to cook them."

Now, after 12 years in Baltimore, Nick Brown has retired from the aquarium to pursue other interests. After a round of tributes and parties and farewell dinners, he turned in his keys June 16 and moved out of state with his wife, Diane, last week.

His last official appearance in Maryland will come today, when he'll receive an honorary doctorate from the Baltimore International Culinary College for his contributions to local tourism.

The consensus among Mr. Brown's colleagues is that he turned out to be exactly what the aquarium needed. It's not just because he was an outsider, they say, but because of the particular skills and perspective he brought with him.

"He made literally hundreds of contributions that set the aquarium on a new course," said Kathy Cloyd Sher, executive deputy director. "He brought dimensions to aquarium life that we didn't even know existed."

David M. Pittenger, who was Mr. Brown's deputy and has taken his place as executive director, agreed that his predecessor had insights an industry insider probably would never have had.

"It's almost better that Nick was an outsider, in some ways, because he looked at the aquarium as a visitor rather than an educator or curator or life support systems expert," Mr. Pittenger said. "He saw it as a visitor would. . . . Ten years later, we're all challenged by his departure to be good stewards of the experience that happens here."

When Mr. Brown was selected after a nationwide search, board members said simply that he was the ideal candidate. He was seen as a risky choice for the board, which had lost two directors in two years.

But it was also a risk for Mr.

Mr. Brown, a career officer who could have pursued any number of ventures when he left the Navy.

At a black-tie dinner in his honor in April, Mr. Brown said he wanted to correct a misconception about his reasons for taking the job.

He explained that his wife's father was a former treasurer of the Oceanographic Institute of Monaco who had the distinction of introducing to that organization then-Cmdr. Jacques Cousteau, later one of the world's most famous marine scientists.

"Whereas people think I came because of water and the Navy," Mr. Brown said, "it was in fact because of my father-in-law."

A graduate of the Naval Academy, a son of the late John Nicholas Brown of Providence, R.I., Mr. Brown had a strong connection to Baltimore through his late mother, Anne Seddon Kinsolving. She was a former music critic and society columnist for the Baltimore News and daughter of the Rev. Arthur Barksdale Kinsolving, longtime rector of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church.

No fish expert

Now 62, Mr. Brown actually stepped down as executive director Jan. 1, the day he was replaced by Mr. Pittenger. After that, he became executive director emeritus, fulfilling a 1993 promise to stay in Baltimore until a $14 million overhaul of the aquarium's ring tanks was finished. By the time work was completed in April, he had begun saying his goodbyes.

On a final walk through the aquarium this month, Mr. Brown admitted he's still no expert on fish. "You're dealing with a Naval officer, not an aquarist," he said.

But he acknowledges that his lack of expertise in the intricacies of marine biology and animal husbandry may have enabled him to see the aquarium from a broader perspective -- as more than a collection of fish and habitats.

Indeed, from the moment he arrived in February 1984, he seemed to have an innate understanding of the magic of aquariums and why they are a hit with people.

In many ways, he was the ultimate visitor -- curious, questioning, eager to learn.

Like his brother, J. Carter Brown, former director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Nick Brown proved to be part businessman, part aesthete and part showman. He has a sense of what makes people sit up and take notice.

Having traveled around the world, he understood tourism and what it meant to Baltimore. Having been surrounded by fine antiques and objets d'art while growing up he had an appreciation for craftsmanship and physical beauty.

(An 18th-century desk from his family home sold several years ago for $12.1 million, a record price for any piece of American furniture.)

Colleagues say he was one of the first directors of an aquarium to treat his facility more as an aquatic museum than a zoo.

"I don't want to offend anyone, but I believe it could be argued that an aquarium is closer to an art museum than to a zoo," he said. "Paul Claudel, a turn-of-the-century French writer and diplomat, once said 'an aquarium is the link between art and nature.' It's completely happenstance that we're lumped in with the same professional association as zoos. We're completely different from zoos."

At the same time, he said, aquariums are different from art museums because of what they house.

"What makes an aquarium different from an art museum is biophilia. That's the natural proclivity of humans to gawk at other living creatures -- be it a puppy in the pet store or a policeman on horseback. People have a natural attraction to other living creatures, in a way that there's not a natural attraction to a Renoir."

Mr. Brown said he's particularly pleased with the strides the aquarium has made to improve a visitor's experience, from keeping the facility spotless to providing timed-entry tickets that help keep lines shorter. "We're a country mile ahead of anybody else" in visitor services, he said.

He's also happy with the way the aquarium has integrated its tourism mission with its conservation mission.

"The big question about the aquarium's mission used to be: Are we an entertainment facility or are we a conservation facility? The answer is yes. Some people have said that we should be either one or the other. They've warned that an emphasis on conservation would hurt our image as a tourist facility. The present board agrees it is not an either/or situation. The two can coexist. And in fact, 'green' organizations, those that are ecologically oriented, have their own market. It is a positive to be perceived as green."

20 million visitors

Mr. Brown was the third director of Baltimore's aquarium, after marine biologist James Kepley and educator Peter Pelham. But the first two combined didn't have nearly as much of an impact as he did.

Throughout Mr. Brown's tenure, the aquarium was Maryland's largest paid tourist attraction, drawing 1.5 million visitors a year. It will soon greet its 20 millionth visitor. Under Mr. Brown's guidance, the aquarium opened its Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 and completed another $25 million worth of improvements.

Mr. Brown led the effort to make the aquarium a stronger advocate of conservation. In partnership with the Nature Conservancy, the aquarium raised more than $150,000 to acquire endangered rain forest land in Costa Rica. It expanded its breeding and animal rescue programs significantly.

Employees and board members describe Mr. Brown as an inspiring leader, an engaging speaker, a charming host, a take-charge but personable boss.

He assembled one of the most knowledgeable staffs in the country and tried to impart a sense of urgency to staff members about the need to keep the aquarium clean and inviting, to be entrepreneurial, to maintain a sense of excitement. His enthusiasm was infectious, colleagues say.

"My definition of leadership is to get people to work to their maximum capabilities," he said. "The staff is my chief legacy. I was enormously flattered that I was succeeded by my chief deputy. That says something about the way he was trained."

New horizons

As they approach the aquarium's 15th anniversary in 1996, staff members are seeking new ideas for growth.

"I think we've gone about as far as we can go on this path," Mr. Brown said. "The challenge for the future is to figure out how to get to the next ring of energy, to put it in terms of the atom. We're dealing with an ever more sophisticated public. How do we take advantage of recent advances in technology, while also taking advantage of biophilia?"

Mr. Brown said he has been gratified over the past few months to drop in on staff meetings and hear his own words "ringing back" at him on more than one occasion, particularly his exhortations to 'Remember the visitor.'

At the dinner in his honor in April, Mr. Brown made a plea to his colleagues to protect what has been created in Baltimore.

"I think this aquarium succeeds because of the genius of [architect] Peter Chermayeff," he said. "He built it and builds his aquariums one way. There are other ways to build aquariums, and there are many other successful aquariums. But there are no successful aquariums that do not pay homage to the god of beauty."

'No one is indispensable'

Now he's off in search of a different kind of beauty.

After spending the summer sailing in Newport, R.I., he says, he'll look for ways to remain active as a volunteer or consultant or both. Perhaps it will be in the aquarium field, and perhaps it will be some other endeavor.

On his final walk through the aquarium, Mr. Brown attempted to downplay his departure as just one more transition.

"I was brought up in the Navy on the principle that no one is indispensable," he said. "In the Navy, you change jobs every two years. You learn to leave your old assignment and tackle the next one with vigor. The people you leave behind may shed a tear. But they quickly buckle down and move ahead."

Still, he admits, the latest move has not been easy.

"The last week was very emotional," he said. "Whenever you do the last of anything -- the last haircut, the last board meeting -- it gets to you. You always wonder if you've done everything you could have, and the answer is no. But I have a sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment that the aquarium's original mission wasn't messed up."

He says he'll miss the camaraderie of the staff and volunteers, and the sight of his favorite fish. "I love the lookdowns, the fish with the funny foreheads. They're so purposeful. They always look like they know what they're doing."

Above all, he said, he'll never forget what a treasure the aquarium is for Baltimore.

"One of my major, major surprises here was the breadth of the sense of ownership of this organization," he said. "If there were a disaster of some sort, there are so many people who would feel a loss or feel offended. It's a center of pride for the entire region."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad