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.