Tennessee Aquarium Bids Farewell To COO Jackson Andrews After 32 Impactful Years

  • Friday, March 10, 2023
  • Casey Phillips

To say that a young Jackson Andrews couldn’t have foreseen becoming a senior leader at the Tennessee Aquarium is a tremendous understatement.

After graduating from a university in Maine with degrees in English and marine science, his hope was to work aboard an ocean research vessel. Aquariums, he thought, couldn’t possibly measure up to the real thing.

“I didn’t see the point,” he says. “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.”

Strange to consider that opinion from a man whose influence has shaped the Tennessee Aquarium for more than 32 years, the last six as its vice president and chief operating officer.

Today, Mr. Andrews bids the Aquarium farewell after a career that began more than a year before the doors opened — a time when the concept of opening an aquarium focused on freshwater aquatic life was considered a novel gamble or, to some, a crazy pipedream.

In his time at the Aquarium, he helped guide it to its current position as a nationally respected institution responsible for attracting 27 million visitors to Chattanooga. He was instrumental in the expansion to a second building, Ocean Journey, in 2005, and for the creation of the Aquarium’s off-site animal care facility.

Mr. Andrews’ change of heart about aquariums came about when — at a former professor’s urging — he applied to and was hired by a small, family-run aquarium on Cape Cod, Ma.

Caring for that facility’s diverse collection of wildlife, which included many species of fish, waterfowl and marine mammals, opened Mr. Andrews’ eyes to the career potential and educational impact of zoological institutions.

“You could educate a lot more people about marine life at an aquarium,” he says, the crisp edges of his Northeastern accent still crystal clear even after decades living in the Southeast. “I found myself saying, ‘This is pretty cool. This is something I can do here or move on to another aquarium.’”

From his position in Cape Cod, Mr. Andrews was hired as one of the first aquarists at the Baltimore Aquarium (now known as the National Aquarium) while it was still under construction. He spent the next 13 years at the Maryland facility, gradually rising among the ranks to the role of assistant curator and, eventually, director of husbandry.

During this time, Baltimore Aquarium’s deputy executive director, William Flynn, was approached by representatives from Chattanooga seeking advice on the planning and development of the Tennessee Aquarium, whose grand opening was still years away.

Mr. Flynn eventually was offered a role as the Tennessee Aquarium’s first president and CEO. Despite his own vast personal experience in the field, he remained outspoken about the importance of surrounding himself with a capable team as the key to achieving success.

“I depend on people,” he told the Chattanooga News-Free Press in a 1992 interview on the eve of the Tennessee Aquarium’s opening. “That’s what I consider management to be: getting the right people for the job in the right spot, letting them do the job and leaving them alone except when they need advice.”

When it came time to find someone to see to the care of the animals that eventually would call the Tennessee Aquarium home, he turned to Mr. Andrews, a past colleague who he considered an ideal fit for the role.

"Bill hadn’t found somebody who was a fish guy,” Mr. Andrews recalls, adding that his former director extended an invitation to visit Chattanooga to evaluate the city and consider becoming his director of husbandry and operations.

“I got back to him and said, ‘I’m really excited about this aquarium. I’d love to work here.’ The rest is history,” he laughs.

During his time at the Aquarium, initially as the director of operations and husbandry, Mr. Andrews developed a notorious reputation — both among his colleagues and within the wider industry — for his exacting standards for all aspects of its operation.

"Jackson is well known for high expectations in the areas of animal care, but he also expects creativity and innovation from staff,” says Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer Julie Piper. “He invites staff members to share their visions and supports those ideas to become reality.

"As vice president, he has expanded those ambitions from building ‘world-class exhibits’ to ensuring the entire guest experience is the best it can be, from the moment they pull in the parking lot until they depart.”

That attention to detail and dedication to excellence has seen the Aquarium continuously meeting the rigorous standards for accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for 30 years.

To achieve AZA accreditation, a zoo or aquarium is evaluated during a multi-day site visit that examines every aspect of its operation, from finances and veterinary resources to education programming, guest service and the state of its facilities. No facet of an organization is left unscrutinized.

In addition to his work at the Aquarium, Mr. Andrews has served numerous roles at AZA, including chairing the program committee, serving as a member of the ethics board and board of directors and two six-year stints on the association’s accreditation commission evaluating other facilities.

Throughout his career, Mr. Andrews reserved his loftiest expectations for the care of the animals, a prioritization that he considers basic common sense.

“As far as the animals go, that’s the most important thing we’ve got,” he says.

To help ensure this top priority received the attention it was due, one of Mr. Andrews’ earliest hires at the Aquarium was staff veterinarian Dr. Chris Keller. In the three decades they worked together, Keller says he was never refused when he approached Andrews with a need or requirement that was in the best interest of the animals.

“No matter how costly it was, Jackson would find a way to do it,” he says. “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.”

After decades serving in a field he never expected to enter — let alone become such an influential figure in — Mr. Andrews says he realizes the time is ripe to make way.

“I think it’s wise of me to get out of the way and let the next generation take over,” he says. “I’ll miss the camaraderie most because the crew we have here is top-notch.”

“But,” he adds, “I leave with a smile on my face.”

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