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A Diamond Well Polished:
The Colorado Aquarium Society
60 Years of History

By Mike Wise


In October 2007, the Colorado Aquarium Society will celebrate its diamond (60th) anniversary as an organization. The members of the CAS should be proud of this accomplishment. Very few fish clubs survive this long! This is a credit to all the members, past and present, who have worked so hard to keep it an active, vibrant, organization in a region known for its “rugged individualism”.

In the Beginning…

1947, Denver was a city very different from the one we know today. The metropolitan area contained a population of about a half-million people. It was primarily a transportation, mining, and agricultural center. The skiing and tourism industries were in their infancies. The financial/high technology center Denver is today was virtually non-existent.

World War II had recently come to a close and Colorado’s men in uniform, like those all over this nation, were settling down to new jobs and raising families that had been delayed by four long years of war. It was a time to relax and enjoy life, and a hobby. In Colorado, one of these hobbies was keeping ornamental fish. An estimated 5,000 homes in the Denver area kept fish at this time – mostly goldfish and guppies.

From its inception, the Colorado Aquarium Society was as much a social organization as an interest group. For the first four years, meetings were held at various members’ homes. Officers meetings were conducted on the same evening (first Monday of each month). Around 50 members and visitors attended each meeting.

The CAS also initiated its monthly newsletter, the Colorado Aquarist, composed of about 16, 8½ x 11-inch mimeographed pages. It wasn’t issued only to members of the club, but sold in area stores and sent out on a subscription basis. From letters that I’ve read in old Aquarists it was very popular, even in outlying states. Walt Moorefield, the editor for the Colorado Aquarist throughout most of this period, must be credited with much of its success. His column, Side Glances, provided members with the latest gossip on members of the club interspersed with many jokes (some now considered sexist) and humorous commentaries. Articles were required from all of the officers and twisted out of most of the other members as well.

Bill Hinch and Sam Mendum were the guiding-forces behind the early club. Dr. Jack Nassimbene provided most of the more technical articles and talks. Annual fish shows started in 1948 – in the homes of a CAS member! They became an annual occurrence for decades to come (in public locations, of course).

By 1951 there were too many people attending meetings to meet in members’ homes comfortably. A new location for meetings was found in the Bird Room of the City Park Museum (Denver Museum of Nature & Science).

The Early Decades

Throughout the 50s and 60s, there was a steady turnover of members. Many of the original founders of the club moved on and were replaced by new ones. Still, during this period the CAS had a steady increase in members, reaching over 200 by 1965. The club’s general meeting location changed several times and officers’ meetings were held on a separate day from the general meeting. Meeting days were changed from Mondays to Tuesdays, then to Wednesdays and back to Tuesdays, to accommodate changing scheduling needs for the club’s members and meeting locations.

In mid-1965, the Colorado Aquarist changed to a 5½ x 8½-inch format with offset printing and half-tone photographs. The CAS wasn’t quite as vibrant an organization during this time but remained an active force in the hobby, hosting regional fish shows every year.

This period in the club’s history didn’t have the movers and shakers that marked the beginnings of the CAS. It did, however, introduce two factors that would shape the CAS in the 70s and 80s. The first was the idea that Denver should have a public aquarium. This idea was first suggested back in 1954, but little was done to interest the public until the early 60s. It was hoped that the Denver Zoo would provide the funding for an aquarium, but other projects continued to take precedence. Still the club continued pursuing the idea of a public aquarium.

The second factor was a new member, Ella Pittman. There wasn’t anything exceptional about Ella for the first few years. She was active in the club as a breeder, a writer, and an occasional club officer but her children, of course, came first. As they became older, Ella took even more interest in all phases of club activities until she became a dominating force in the CAS.

The Pittman Years

Those who had the privilege of knowing and working with Ella, which I had the honor of doing, were continually amazed by the energy and abilities of this lovely, soft-spoken, and openhearted lady. She always had a way of getting things done. She could cajole nearly any club member into helping with club activities. Her enthusiasm was almost contagious!

The late 60s and early 70s found the club at an ebb of volunteerism. Membership dropped off and more of the members showed only casual interest in the activities of the club. Perhaps it was a reaction to the rebellious 60s and the Vietnam War, maybe just a part of the ebb and flow cycle seen in most organizations, but active members were few and far between. Activities like mall shows and auctions seemed to continue more on past momentum than anything else. Program Chairman and Editor of the Aquarist were difficult positions to fill. Ella took over the editorship duties in 1970 and published ten issues of the Colorado Aquarist every year almost single-handedly until she moved to Oregon. When no one wanted to take on finding programs for the general meeting, Ella always seemed to come through. She organized people in such a way that auctions and mall shows, picnics and collecting trips seemed to operate without a hitch. She was the mover and shaker of the club. She had her hand in everything but strangely, you didn’t notice it at all. She would suggest, never push. She became a mentor to many who would become the leaders of the club after she left – including me. If Ella hadn’t been there for the CAS at this critical period, I sometimes wonder if it would have survived.

Strangely, during this period the drive for building a public aquarium came to the fore. Sally Winkler headed a drive to get one built in City Park. The Denver Zoo Foundation was interested, too. The Foundation estimated the cost of building an aquarium at that time to be about five million dollars. Under Sally’s direction the CAS started promoting a public aquarium on radio and in newspapers. Several raffles were used to start a public aquarium fund. Hoping to raise $50,000 in seed money, they found the interest of the citizens of metro Denver less than hoped. Hopes were dashed and the fund would languish unused for two more decades.

The second innovation during this period was the initiation of the Breeder’s Award Program. There were several active breeders in the club at this time. Ella Pittman, Mike Wilson, Rick Haeffner (presently Curator or the Denver Zoo’s Tropical Discovery), and Al Morales were in the forefront, and a friendly competition was growing among members to see how many different fish species could be bred. Members felt that a program was needed that would recognize each aquarist’s accomplishments in breeding fish. So in 1974, after reviewing other breeder award programs, Bob Blackburn, Earnest Montgomery, Mike Wilson, and Sally Winkler developed the rules and standards for the CAS Breeder’s Award Program. Other than some minor changes, it is still used by us and many other clubs around the country.

By the late 70s, the CAS was again building a strong membership base with many new faces (mine included) that would lead the club in the 80s. Even during the ‘stag-flation’ doldrums of the late 70s, Denver was a growing energy center with a burgeoning economy. Optimism was everywhere. The Broncos even got to the Super Bowl! The CAS saw a new vitality, drawing on newly arrived fish hobbyist who had come partake in Denver’s growing economy. When Ella Pittman left Denver in the summer of 1982, the nucleus for new leadership was there to carry on.

Dashed Hopes and a Golden Promise – the 80s

After Ella Pittman left, the CAS had to survive some growing pains. Taking over the many projects that Ella had done left us ‘survivors’ amazed and humbled by the amount of work she had done. With sputters and starts, the CAS started to grow. Al Morales and Oliver Pansky took over the unenviable job of putting out the Aquarist. It had returned to it original 8½ x 11 inch format by then. Rick Haeffner was our ‘fish expert’ and BAP chairman. Auctions and shows continued as before thanks to a lot of work by the boyfriend (and later, husband) of a certain young veterinary student at Colorado State University. Vicki Mills and Dan “Why can’t I ever keep my mouth shut!” Aber were instrumental fixtures in most club activities as well as getting the Colorado Aquarist published at C.S.U. Edd Kray brought his expertise in club activities from his experiences with the Cleveland Aquarium Society and American Killifish Association. His interest in killies would start a killie group in the Denver area. Ken Reeves guided us through many of these years as president. My wife Diane and I seemed to have filled in where needed, jointly holding about every office and chair at one time or another. These, and too many others to mention, rejuvenated the club in the early 80s.

The prospect of a public aquarium at the Denver Zoo popped up again in 1980. A ballot initiative to increase Denver’s cultural activities tax was proposed and a sizable portion would go to building an aquarium at the Denver Zoo. CAS members spent many weekends and evening (and days, too) standing in front of supermarkets and other retail stores, getting people to sign the initiative. After getting enough signatures, CAS members went out again publicizing the ballot initiative and urging its passage. It passed! Denver would soon be getting its public aquarium. Then hopes for an aquarium were dashed again. Congress passed the Marine Mammals Act. Denver’s zoo needed to comply with new regulations or lose its polar bears, seals, and sea lions. Monies designated for the aquarium were used to build the Denver Zoo’s Northern Shores exhibit. It was a stunning disappointment to the club.

The emotional energy brought about by the ballot initiative drained away and with it a draining of the vitality of the CAS. It took about four years to recuperate, but recuperate it did.

Ken Reeves used his considerable contacts to bring quality speakers to the general meetings. Under Frank Lisle’s leadership, the CAS became a more member-oriented club with more extracurricular activities. Who can’t help but smile fondly at the memory of the beef/turkey heart fish food making forays hosted by Dan and Vicki Aber! Ken and the Abers were instrumental in getting our auctions up and running to heights unknown before. The club had funding at a level unknown before.

The Aquarist had been reduced from a monthly newsletter to a quarterly one. Being editor, printer, mailer, etc. of the Aquarist for 1985 I realized that a monthly magazine was becoming too time consuming and too expensive to continue. After my one-year tenure as editor, the Aquarist fell on hard times for a couple of years until Kathy Rader and Suzanne Royer joined forces as co-editors and brought out a truly outstanding publication in 1989. The Aquarist returned to being a top publication under Kathy Radar and Suzanne Royer, being recognized by the FAAS as being the best publication and having the best editors in 1990. Unfortunately, Kathy and Suzanne had to resign in 1992. For two years, it was published sporadically until Rose Klocek took on the challenge by publishing a monthly Aquarist. The time and energy put into the process finally took its toll. It has become a semi-annual publication like so many aquarium club magazines, supplemented by monthly newsletter.

A Dream Becomes a Reality

The early 90s was a period of contradictions. The Denver Zoo broke ground on Tropical Discovery, which only whetted our appetites for a major aquarium. One of our members again came to the fore with the vision and energy to push the dream of a public aquarium to fruition. Gale Schmidt was to become a virtual one-man lobbyist to metro area cities, pushing for a commitment to building a public aquarium.

The CAS was spending many hours lobbying city governments in the area to commit land and money to building a public aquarium. Under Gale Schmidt’s leadership, the club not only emphasized the cultural benefits of hosting a public aquarium but economic ones as well. Feasibility studies on costs and economic benefits of a public aquarium were produced and presented to several municipalities.

The city of Lakewood was initially interested but wasn’t willing to fund such a project. Then Westminster became interested. Bonds were approved for funding the Butterfly Pavilion and a public aquarium. By 1994, it looked like a public aquarium would be built in Westminster. At the same time, another public aquarium was being proposed in the Platte River valley as well as a privately financed one in Littleton. Everyone realized that metro Denver couldn’t support three public aquariums. The publicly financed aquariums were competing for the same corporate sponsors, who were withholding commitments to both until it was decided which aquarium site would finally be selected. The stalemate couldn’t continue. Meanwhile the proposed privately funded aquarium collapsed when it couldn’t get adequate funding. Finally, the two remaining public aquarium boards of directors met and decided to join forces, becoming Colorado’s Ocean Journey. Corporate funding came in, land was purchased, and ground was broken on building a public aquarium that opened in 1999.

The CAS was justly proud of its contribution toward bringing to completion the dream of a public aquarium in Denver. Promoting the public aquarium took a lot of time and effort from most of the more active CAS members, however, often to the detriment of the club itself. Even the organizational skills of Eric Ramirez, who was president of the CAS for much of this period, couldn’t juggle meeting the needs of the club and promoting a public aquarium. The people needed just didn’t come forward.

With the public aquarium a reality, the CAS returned to its original mission: “To promote and further knowledge and development of amateur Ichthyology”. To this end, the CAS has brought many nationally known aquarists to Denver. Our general meetings were changed to Fridays to facilitate this. Under the leadership of John Hansen the CAS put on it first regional fish symposium in 1994. Its success could be seen by the number of new members at our general meetings. In 1997, the CAS celebrated its 50th anniversary with a symposium of noted speakers and a fish show, the Colorado Gold.

A New Millennium

New technology and other events changed activity in the CAS during the first years of the new millennium. Colorado Ocean Journey had financial problems. Attendance dropped below projections. There was insufficient money to pay off debts. Investors were threatening foreclosure and selling off the assets of the public aquarium. Eventually, Ocean Journey filed bankruptcy in 2002. A year later, the building was sold to a Houston-based corporation, Landry’s Restaurants, Inc. Landry’s remodeled the building into an aquarium-restaurant-events center, renaming it Denver’s Downtown Aquarium. For better or worse, the public aquarium that the CAS worked to have built for so many years fell into private hands. At the same time, the Denver Zoo’s Tropical Discovery became known worldwide for its work on preserving the fish fauna of Madagascar.

Widespread access to the internet seems to have affected membership in this and many other clubs. People new to the hobby, who used to become members of aquarium clubs, started moving to the internet for advice and information. Yet the CAS continues to have a dedicated core of members. Noted speakers on a wide variety of aquatic topics appear monthly before the membership, thanks to the profits of our biennial auctions. The club membership even includes respected aquarists on many different aquarium topics. The CAS has developed its own web site. Recent modifications have improved it greatly, making it useful not only to members, but to hobbyists all over the world.

The CAS celebrates its 60th anniversary in October 2007. Its continued success seems assured for many years to come. Congratulations to all members of the Colorado Aquarium Society. You deserve it!



History (c) Mike Wise

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