Posted by Editor: FDBobko
APRIL 4, 2024
Joe Brennan
The San Francisco Steinhart Aquarium
Article by Stacy Trevenon
Pictures by Dianne Bobko and Liz Schuck

Joe Brennan delighted with his presentation on the Steinhart Aquarium, which celebrated its 100th anniversary last Sept. 29, having opened in 1923. It got its name through one man with a dream and passion to have a world-class aquarium in San Francisco. He and his brother Ignats, both from Bavaria, opened a successful dry-goods store in Placerville after the Gold Rush, and ended up with a string of dry-goods stores up and down California. Ignats, who went into banking and investing, dreamed that San Francisco should have an aquarium. The brothers each put up $20,000 to fund an aquarium. But the city demurred, not sure where to put it. 

A possible location was argued until 1922, when it finally opened. The architect was Timothy Fluger, renowned for his work on many big Bay Area facades including in Grand Lake and Oakland. By the time he died he had upped his donation to $250,000, with the stipulation that the aquarium be located in Golden Gate Park, funded by the city and managed by the Academy of Sciences. 

Joe was hired there for his “golden job” -- like Dianne had in Houston and Kevin had onstage as part of the Chip and Dale Review, he said. 

The Steinhart opened as a world-class, world aquarium, equipped to take care of any aquatic animal that anyone brought in. It had six different water systems – 3 salt and 3 fresh – with hot, normal (ambient) and cold salt or fresh water. There were also special systems for dolphins, penguins etc. 

The aquarium had “a real zest and brilliance” for exhibiting the animals, plus fun things like archer fish, “a real kick” for grade-school kids. This was a tank of fish that lived in the Amazon, that were very accurate at spitting: these fish could spit a stream of water to adjacent vegetation and zap insects to eat. At Steinhart, they set up a little plywood target above the tank and put crickets on it at 12, 2 and 4 o’clock, and fish would come up for delectable target practice.

One of many things Joe liked was the “womb with a view,” or little egg sacs found on the beach --- “meermaid eggs” --  or eggs of little flatfish, in which aquarium personnel would install tiny windows so you could see the egg developing. 

And electric eels: Aquarium workers put a microphone in the water for when one eel annoyed another. You could hear the “Zzzzt!” when the annoyed eel responded. That delighted the kids. 

They also had a fish roundabout and a tidepool where visitors could touch anenomes and shellfish.

Some had personalities, Joe said: like the Pacific octopus, the female can be three times larger than the male. The aquarium’s female was nocturnal; daytime visitors could only see a big pulsing lump and an eye peering at them. One day a staffer reported to Joe that the tank holding Dungeness crabs was missing a crab for the second day in a row. An employee from the Philippines and staff suspected noodles and crab were being cooked  (everyone laughed knowingly)  until someone found that the Pacific octopus was three tanks over, and shells were found on the floor of her tank. This octopus, Joe said, was able to lift the lid of her tank, squeeze out, slither along the intervening two tanks and grab a Dungeness crab for a midnight snack. “It was magnificent,” he said. So staff set up a camera to catch the thief in the act: Since the octothief could be in the air for about 40 minutes, she could get away with it. Staff glued astroturf between the water and the tank where the lid was, so she couldn’t get suction to help her plunder. “That was our octopus story.”

Joe told of the alligator swamp, where lived an albino alligator named Claude. An employee named Tommy Green donned boots to go into the swamp daily to feed chicken to the inhabitants (Joe said they didn’t bite Tommy because they liked chicken better) but one day Tommy he heard a scream of “Tommy Green, you get out of there this minute!” from his mother – the first time she’d seen what he did at work. 

Joe dedicated the talk to his boss, John McCosker the aquarium director, and described the swamp and its lush tropical vegetation. Wanting to add birds, they brought in a showy white cockatiel which was fed to delight the public. Plans to introduce birds into the swamp were announced to the press, who gathered with cameras ready --- until the cockatiel flew down toward the swamp and an alligator rose up and gave one chomp. All that remained was one white feather. “When publicity goes bad, it really goes bad,” Joe sighed mournfully.

The head of security at Steinhart, Lavelle Alderson, was introduced, and Joe spoke of her staff and their “interesting chore:” The alligator swamp had triangular-shape cast seahorses on the upright rails. Kids loved to look at them but got their heads stuck in the rails and had to be released with help from Vaseline which got in their ears. When their Moms told the kids to wash the Vaseline out of their ears, the kids could only say, “Huh?” That got a laugh.

At Steinhart they’d done pioneering work on different species, Joe said, including coral and penguins. The aquarium took on the project of artificially raising coral in a 100-gallon tank. Coral needs lots of strong sunlight as it eats by photosynthesis, so Steinhart had three 1,000-watt light fixtures, like those used at Candlestick Park, making the scene very bright. McCosker had an ichthyologist  friend interested in propagating coral artificially – who was the emperor of Japan, making security an issue. They sent the Secret Service to survey the area, but the emperor never did visit. 

When Joe took on the job of Chief Engineer, he had to be certified as a diver, which he thought would be handy at Steinhart. He had to go to the ocean on a collecting tour. But first the boat’s ignition key, then its motor, then the steering, all had trouble and had to be fixed. He also at one point had to go to Hawaii to collect coral, and successfully got lots of black volcanic rock, but discovered that they had also bought back some life forms and new species hidden in the rock – but ended up with a completely balanced ecosystem. 

Then he discussed the penguin project, which involved successfully setting up a habitat for “adorable” penguins. With funding from the World Wildlife Fund, he helped collect, in South Africa, some “jackass” penguins, so named for their color and their bray-like cry. Since a major oil spill such as the one from the Exxon Valdez could wipe them out, a vigorous number of penguins had to be collected in captivity; so Joe became part of collecting a dozen penguins and settling them into incubators that looked like an old Ferris wheel with rows of seats. That simulated the natural jiggles of the nest environment.  They also bought in a helpful “penguin machine”  that maintains the temperatures of natural life. That brought a very vigorous number of penguins, to have on hand in case the ones in captivity were wiped out and penguins in nature became extinct.

In Hawaii, dogs, cats, rats and humans made the penguins easy pickings. But from a small population of penguins in an Ohio zoo, they were able to repopulate Hawaii – both the big island and Maui. 

Flash forward, to when Joe left the Academy and was at a tech museum in San Jose. By that time they had a little pen and wading pool on the roof, with 20-25 surplus penguins looking for homes. Someone told him of an offer to house them in Las Vegas – Joe dryly thought, “Going over to the Dark Side? What the hell?!” but was reassured that the Nevada Fish and Game was part of the plan. A local casino had hired some agriculturists, so he said okay and headed that way. A few years later he was booked into a security conference in Las Vegas; en route to the conference hall he went through the yard of the Flamingo Hotel – and here was a lush garden with ponds and a pink flamingo, and on the beach beyond, jackass penguins! Joe told the Rotarians that he yelped “It’s me! Father Joe! It was such an emotional moment!” That summed up his “unnatural relationship with jackass penguins!” 

Fast forward a decade to Part II of his story: Joe’s niece Louise was going to get married and he was asked to solemnize the wedding, in Malibu Canyon in a venue with a lawn and big oak trees. But when there, upon spotting a dog carrier out of which walked two jackass penguins, Joe thought, “Holy cow!” He forgot the wedding to go talk to the owners who had secured the pair in Las Vegas, set free because they were no longer a breeding pair. Since penguins mate for life, the plan was to have Joe at the altar with one penguin and have the other at the back, and both penguins had the wedding rings looped around their necks. At a signal, the penguin in back would walk up to join Joe (bringing a chorus of oohs and aahhs from the Rotarians.) At the reception, guests came up to Joe to exclaim how cute it was to see the two penguins walk up the aisle together --- proof that “eyewitnesses don’t all see the same thing and we do have enhanced memories,” Joe said.

Part III:  Back to the aquarium when they had 17 penguins. That meant there was an odd man out, Joe said: a “rasty little character” named Oreo. This was 1991, the “year of Tibet” since George H.W. Bush had focused on the reunification of Tibetan families. As part of that celebration the Asian Art Museum had arranged a show of Tibetan art called “Wisdom and Compassion”, and the Steinhart Aquarium hung a show called “My Tibet” with photos by famous mountaineering photographer Galen Rowell paired with words by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and photos of wildlife and wild scenes. It was a double-header: the Dalai Lama himself was to open both the show and the “Wisdom and Compassion” across the street. He came to us first, Joe said, because he had led some treks in Nepal and visited Tibet. The spiritual leader got introduced to the head of the Aquarium board. 

Joe said: We’d heard that the Dalai Lama liked birds. So here we are at the Steinhart Aquarium; we overlooked every species of reptile and fish and amphibian we had, and we went to the birds and overlooked all of them except little Oreo. We were going to put Oreo out so the Dalai Lama could see a penguin. We made a little crib of Plexiglass and kitty litter on the bottom to keep their wretched stink down because they liked fish, and I opened the door and asked His Holiness in, and he looks over and he sees the penguin and he looks at it, and I’m thinking, “Mission accomplished! I’ve shown the Dalai Lama a penguin!” But no. He starts bending down, and picks it up to see how heavy it is, and I’m thinking to myself, Does he know that’s Oreo? (laughter filled the room). It crosses my mind – the headline in tomorrow’s Chronicle – “Penguin draws Dalai Lama’s blood!” 

But he puts it down, he stands up and he comes toward me. We’re about ready to turn, and he goes back over, and he actually picks him up this time, and starts bringing him to his face. I can see that he’s trying to decide whether to kiss him or hug him – Janet videotaped this and you can see the Dalai Lama pursing his lips as the penguin comes up into the frame – and now my mind is screaming, The headline will read, “Dalai Lama loses an eye because of Brennan’s lack of caution!” 

But indeed, little Oreo was just as placid as could be. Just sweet and compliant. He hugged him, and put him back down, and – want a third time? – He goes back over, and lifts up the wing, and said, “Can they fly?” I said, “Yes, powerfully, but only under water, and that’s how they rotate.” And he opened his beak, like he was looking for teeth, but (I thought) he’s not going to get away with this, but he did! No stabbing, no biting, and by that time, myself and the other people escorting him realized, This individual has a keen interest in natural history, and we’re not going to take him through that door and go straight to the reception, we’re going to show him the rest of the Aquarium. We’re going to shanghai him. So we did – and he was just a joy to conduct around. He had wonderful questions, he was perceptive, he knew what he was looking at – “Why don’t the big ones eat the little ones? Where do they sleep? Why are there plants in this one but not in that one?” It was a joy to take him around.

We got to the end, which had all the pictures from the book “My Tibet,” and we went from one picture  to another and he was talking about them with the photographer and  making comments. At the end was a large picture of the back of the Potalla Palace, and there was a steep tramway going up, and the Dalai Lama looked at it, and I have to say that, as the 14th reincarnation looking at that building, what did that mean to him? Anyway, he looked at it, and he said something I would never expect to hear from the lips of the Dalai Lama, who’s a philosopher, a religious leader, a wise man – He pointed, as he does with his little finger, at the driveway, and he said, “Very steep! I burned up the clutches on two (? vehicles  and a Dodge!”  He really got me. (The Rotarians in the library erupted in laughter.) So that was the experience with the penguins and the Dalai Lama, my third unnatural encounter with him.

I want to tell one last story, a story I heard before I worked there. It was about Bill (?), God rest his soul, who took care of the dolphins. He would feed the dolphins at 12, 2 and 4 (everybody else gets fed then) and then he would wash his bucket, hang it up and go to the Parklane Bar on Ninth Avenue – a short walk away – and have a drink and see who he could pick up. He was out there one day, and in walks this gorgeous young woman, and sits down, and she orders a drink and they start talking. She’s a stewardess on layover, she’s staying at a hotel downtown, and she’d been out to the Park to the DeYoung museum to see an art show, and now she was having a drink before she caught the streetcar back downtown. So Bill starts with the small talk, and then he grabs his killer pickup line: “Have you ever wanted to swim with dolphins?”

And she says, “Oh, my God, I’ve dreamed of swimming with dolphins! You must be reading my mail!” So Bill says, “Really? Well, if you want to swim with dolphins, you’ve come to the right place.” She says, “How can you do that?” He says, “Honey, I can make your dreams come true. Just finish your drink and follow me.” So they walk back into the Park, he has the key and he goes into the gallery in the back where they feed from, and says, “Here’s where we drop our laundry, strip all your clothes off,” and in they go. 

And the dolphins are in this big blue tank, no environmental stimulation and here’s some friendly people. And they love it! You know that dolphins are very protective of themselves, they’ll come up to you and it looks like they want to be petted, and you reach out your hand and you’re almost one inch away and you’re in total control. So they’re following me around, and he hears his name, “Bill! Bill!” and he comes up and he says, “Lavelle! Lavelle! What’s the big deal?” “Mr. Bill, you’ve got to get out right now.” And Bill says, “Lavelle, you know I do this all the time. It’s okay.” And he says, “I know you do it all the time and we really appreciate it, but today you’ve go to get out right now!” And he says, “What’s the big deal?” He says, “Bill, we went over the summer hours, and the public is out there and you’re causing a stampede!” (More laughter.)

You’ve been a great audience, I have a thousand more stories, but that’s probably all you can take. Thunderous applause arose.

Kevin called for more stories about sharks. Joe replied: About the sharks, especially the sharks in these waters, the great white shark has a real reputation, a real attraction and fascination and a morbid fear in a lot of people, so having a great white shark on display would be a wonderful coup for the Steinhart Aquarium. Now, they would take a pretty big tank and so, what we were offered by our wonderful local fisherman, Mike McHenry, was a frozen great white shark. He had caught one some years before, killed it and brought it in, put it in the ice house on pallets, and froze it, and had a display case made. It was like a little Pullman car, it had a window in the front and a window on both sides, and refrigeration and triple blades, and he put the shark in there, and actually on the off-season from fishing toted it around to county fairs in Northern and Southern California, making money from people wanting to see a great white shark. But because he had put a dead shark on the pallets in the ice house, it had sort of a pear shape and it settled down. It wasn’t very much looking like a shark is, a streamlined killing machine, and here was this dumpy, fat – But it had its mouth open, so that was good.

A few years went by, the car was sitting in Princeton plugged in, but no shark in it; he had an opportunity when he caught another shark, a 13-foot get white shark, he decided that he could have a better display.  So this time, instead of killing it, he fished it on board and put it into his hold, which he filled with seawater and started circulating the seawater through his refrigeration system. It got colder and colder, and the shark was swimming at first and then it wasn’t swimming but getting pretty lethargic, but it was going toward freezing with its full hydrodynamic shape. At one point it was pretty much immobilized but still breathing; he jumped in and had his deckhand hand him a clawhammer, and he wrenched open the jaw and put the clawhammer between the upper and lower jaw, so it would freeze in that position. It was pretty well frozen by the time he got in, and he lifted it out and put it on the forklift and put it in to be frozen. He was going to put it into his miniature (something) car but he thought of a better way: he didn’t want to go from fair to fair anymore; he called up Steinhart Aquarium and offered to donate it. 

We were tickled to get it; it cost us a display case; his display case had been sitting in Princeton with refrigeration, so even though it was  triple-glazed, moisture would condense on the outside of the windows, run down and run out of the wooden structure. It was a good thing that we discovered that; we were offered a free helicopter ride for the great white shark from Princeton up the coast and up to Golden Gate Park to the Academy of Sciences by the *** Brothers Aviation Company and if they hadn’t taken that old container it would have just rotted and dribbled down on the beaches between here and the city. 

I had to go down to the box truck and pick it up and bring it up to the Academy; we had rented a container with a freezer unit in it and we put the great white shark in there until we could build our display. And John remembered it because he came to a party that Jan and I had; it was our 20th anniversary and we offered a field trip to see the great white shark. “You have a great white shark? We’ve never heard of that here at the Aquarium!” and so I took people down to the loading dock where we had this container, opened (he gave a sound like creaking)  and flashed a flashlight, and there was the mouth of a great white shark coming right out of the cooler box! (Great laughter arose.) 

So we built a display case – our display case had a window at the end and a window on the side so you could look right down its throat. It was a real success, and we had that up – people estimated it would last nine months, a year if we’re lucky, and one of the things that happens to frozen specimens on display, is they sublimate – that is, water that is frozen in the tissues of the animal flash to gas and go off. So it starts to shrink, just like an aging process, just like it would if it were alive. So we set up a regime: every day we’d go in with a spray bottle and spray it – Water could be sacrificial to the process of sublimation, it also gave it a nice shiny look, so that was the story of the great white shark. 

Someone noted that this event was the “coolest reason I ever missed school.”  Joe’s daughter was age 8 to 16 while he was working there, so she had a lot of cool field trips and a chance to swim with the dolphins with a wetsuit on. 

Dianne asked, how did he get there with this job? He said, “it didn’t take much to tip the scales.” For the previous six years he was working at a sewage treatment plant in San Francisco, and a piece of advice he gave to the high school seniors on Monday (the Rotary at the High School event) was advice he’d taken himself: whenever you qualify for a position or an interview, even if you don’t want the position, take the interview, so when you really want a job, you take it and you’re not nervous; it isn’t your first time in the box. Joe had taken a few civil service tests, and he’d learned to position himself right so that when it came up, it was “what a choice! Every time he got splashed he didn’t have to go run and wash himself. 

What was Joe’s favorite animal at the Aquarium? Well, he said, we all have this image in our minds of when we see something and wish we had a camera. He told a story of when he came out of his basement office and saw a parochial school visiting, with kids maybe 6 or 7; the office manager was the agriculturist in charge of the penguins and she brought one down. The nuns in this school wore the full habit, and she knelt down, face to face with a penguin, penguin to penguin, and that was his favorite memory.

As President Liz said, we’ve waited a long time for this presentation.

CLUB MEETING,  April 4, 2024
President Liz called the meeting in the Half Moon Bay Library community room.                                            

Pledge of Allegiance Past President Ginger Minoletti led the Pledge of Allegiance.

Inspirational Thought Liz offered words of wisdom (paraphrased): “These are reasons that someone smiles, reasons that someone feels loved, and believes in the goodness of people,” said by Roy Bennett.

Guests and  . . . Liz had everyone introduce themselves, as quite “a crowd of people” came today. Joe Bennan’s guests included his wife Jan, niece Abby, sister Susan, nephew Jesse, daughter Joan; and Half Moon Bay residents Sam, Sally, Cheryl, Frederick from the Odd Fellows, Judy Engel; John and Nancy Szabo, Gary Warhaftig, Jack McKinnon. He also recognized various Rotarians: Susan Kealey and Dennis, Stacy Trevenon, Pete Zell from Moss Beach, Heather Bodmann, Mitone Griffiths, Alice from the Odd Fellows, newest Rotary member Dustin, community activist Joyce Logan, Leo and Gail, Kerry Lobel from the Academy of Sciences, Rosi and Hal, Drew Gamet from the Half Moon Bay school district, financial manager Warren Barmore, Tom Anderson from Anderson Hardware on the Coast, “our own foot-in-the-mouth doctor” Irwin Cohen and his wife and new Rotary club member Nancy, Mexico visitor Terry, videographer Gail Evenari, Ray Day (whose arm was sore because Joe twisted it to get him here,) Dave and Marla Dickson, and Rotarians Dianne, Ginger, Kevin, Rose, Ed, Clark and Paul Wrubel, who Liz noted is the one who beautifully sets up this room each week.  

Recognizing . . . Liz noted that one of the best things we Rotarians do is recognize people but since neither of the planned honorees was here today we recognized members who have made major contributions such as Mary and Ralph. Also, since we like to thank people for contributions to Rotary, she mentioned members who got up early two weeks ago to go to Larkspur to represent our club at the Assembly, like President-elect Irwin. She listed Bizzy Bee awards (named for Busy Lizzie) like Warren Barmore, and then she handed out packets of springtime seeds including milkweed and wildflowers to Kevin O’Brien, Stacy Trevenon, Nancy Wolfberg, Paul Wrubel, Irwin, and Mitone Griffiths who will be District Governor after next year representing over 1,600 people in 43 Rotary clubs over Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. That drew hearty applause.

Liz also recognized new member Nancy, who has taken on a “huge undertaking” to co-chair the club Foundation fundraiser; she got hand lotion which she will need. Liz also thanked Susan Kealey for arranging the field trip to Coast Pride, where Rotarians learned a lot about support for the Coastside’s LGBTQ-plus community; she said more training for understanding is needed. She also recognized Warren for taking on the Dictionary project, and Rosi Fontana who contributed at the recent potluck so participants could have cheese and crackers and fruit. 

Upcoming Events  Liz mentioned the Odd Fellows, reminding us of the field trip to Sam’s Castle; on Apr. 25, instead of a regular club meeting, we will go on a field trip there. She sent a signup list around. For an annual joint meeting at the Basque Cultural Center on April 24 we will join members of the South San Francisco, Millbrae, Pacifica and Daly City clubs. Members are invited to add checks and their forms to this list.

This week started Coastside Gives and there were posters on the tables; if you have a business, take a poster and put it up so people know we are collecting money like other local organizations to support our foundation and causes like supporting the needy and scholarships like the Odd Fellows do (we’re on Page 69 of the Coastside Gives booklet.) This document lets the world know about the 70-plus nonprofits in Half Moon Bay. If the Rotary club does not have a minimum of $250 raised by May, we cannot participate with Coastside Gives, so it’s imperative to meet that amount and now we are at 0. She asked people to help by putting up signs in their yards.

Announcements  Kevin said that at the District Assembly, there was a speaker who does water projects with H2Open Doors throughout the world (either drilling wells or setting up purification and distribution of clean drinking water.) There’s a fundraiser set for next fall: a rock concert at Shoreline Amphitheater, for which Live Nation which runs the amphitheater will book the A-list talent. He asked us to think about that – with tickets going at $200 apiece, they will gross $2.8 million.  Is anyone interested in performing?! Rotary can have a booth and tent at this event next fall, to which thousands of people will go. Think about this or other big ideas.

Happy News  Dianne said today is the anniversary of Karol “Bo” Bobko’s first foray into space on the first flight on the Challenger Space Shuttle.

Ginger had a good time going through the Panama Canal  with her husband, sister and brother-in-law; she posted flyers on the tables for a fundraiser for Barterra Winery this Saturday. 

Warren spoke about several Rotarians who went to Half Moon Bay High to do the mock interviews to show seniors what to expect in real life. He pointed out something “that was not so encouraging” when they did the flag salute: Rotarians were standing but no one else stood. He asked his kids if this was normal, and they said yes. We can “still teach our youth,” he said.

Rosi had a successful fifth eye surgery and hopes to be more active now.

Mitone said her youngest, Ayla, who had her first Rotary meeting at a week old about 18 years ago, is going to college at Colorado State.

Liz introduced visiting Past District Governor Shari Teresi. And she spotlighted Joe Brennan, who will today give a presentation about his time as Chief Engineer at the Steinhart Aquarium. Joe said, if you don’t know him, ask the person next to you. Delighted applause answered that.