The coming and going of visionaries


We’re staying in a hotel in Saint John tonight. We have a hospital visit tomorrow. To pass the time I went online to check the local news and learned that Dr. John Anderson passed away on Thursday.

John was one of my favourite people at the Huntsman. He and I had worked together on the fundraising campaign for the new Discovery Centre and in just one visit (which he’d personally arranged earlier) with a donor we brought in a $500,000 gift. That was the kind of guy John was. When you were with him good things happened.

Other people could tell you more about John. He was a storied guy. He’d been the director of the St. Andrews Biological Station, head director of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans national research program and shortly afterward, president of the University of New Brunswick. And in that same busy period in the early 1970s he started up the Huntsman Marine Science Centre. Its christening, I’m told, involved outdoor video presentations, bigwigs and a real submarine.

The John I knew was near the very end of his career and struggled to keep up. But keep up he did—with passion. John was the keeper of the Huntsman flame and did not suffer fools gladly. To say he could be temperamental at times would be an understatement.

I remember running into that side of him one beautiful spring morning. I was showing a video in the Huntsman boardroom about the state of today’s oceans. The video, Altered Oceans, was produced by the LA Times and documented ocean acidification, the giant plastic garbage swirl in the mid-Pacific and more. About halfway through I turned to John and asked, “What do you think?” He stood up and muttered, “Junk science,” and walked out.

The incident bothered me. I respected John’s opinion and his dismissiveness hurt. It wasn’t until seeing the news of his passing that I figured it out. I realized that for all his adventure and vision, John was an innately conservative man—in the best sense. John saw himself in the role of conservator, educator and consensus-builder.

People will undoubtedly eulogize John the professional man and John the family man. But the John I knew believed that motivated, cooperative individuals could actually save the world. I have to admit to sharing that view, which makes his loss all the greater.

And I now understand why John couldn’t accept that LA Times documentary. I don’t think John could allow himself to believe human beings would destroy something as vast as the ocean he loved. To the end I think John believed that science and industry—working with the public—could manage “the commons.”

I sincerely hope he’s right, though recent scientific evidence stirs up grave misgivings. But if we follow John’s lead, we won’t just sit here waiting for things to happen, we’ll get up and do something.

That “something” could be a wonderful challenge for John’s beloved Huntsman. The oceans are indeed compromised. The ocean story in this region is compelling.

Under John’s watch the Huntsman crew—led by Fred Whorisky, Bill Robertson, Bill Smith, Mike Henderson, Sandra Clark, Tracey Dean, Muriel Jarvis, Gerhard Pohle, Lou Van Guelpen and many others—has rebuilt the physical operation, forged new partnerships with companies such as Paturel and created new programs such as the New Brunswick grade six outreach program. When the new aquarium opens this July, a new era will begin at the Huntsman, as John Anderson’s passing marks an ending.

By design the new Huntsman mandate will be outreach—and saving the oceans. These two things are leagues way from the bricks and mortar build-out over the past five years at the Huntsman—and the parallel rebuild happening at the neighbouring St. Andrews Biological Station.

Capital improvements are never a guarantee of operational success. Staff cuts will always be a possibility at the Biological Station, and the Huntsman itself will have to attract at least twice the visitors of any other attraction in St. Andrews to remain financially healthy (though its industrial science operations could go a long way to offset any shortfalls in tourism visitations).

But still, it will be a tightrope walk. The Huntsman’s future will depend on corporate contracts and corporate largess. Yet a “save the oceans” educational mission could just put it at odds with its corporate sponsors, such as aquaculture companies.

The Huntsman, like so many not-for-profit environmental organizations, will have to define—and clearly state—its ethical mandate to the public as it moves forward.

Unlike many organizations, the Huntsman is fortunate to have two very good role models to whom they might turn in forming either ethical proposition. Both Dr. A.G. Huntsman and Dr. Anderson were visionaries and innovators. A.G. Huntsman spearheaded the research in the 1920s that led to inventions such as the world’s first fast-frozen fish fillets as well as pioneering research into ocean life. John Anderson pioneered partnerships that led to the twin-campus University of New Brunswick and the multi-university partnership that led to the creation of the Huntsman.

Moving into the future—and given the environmental challenges facing us—the new Huntsman leaders might ask themselves, “What would John Anderson do? What would A.G. Huntsman do?”

I’d love to know, wouldn’t you?


  1. This was a very moving and inspired post. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    Moving into the future-
    Let us find the people that inspire and motivate, away from the media promotional agenda.

  2. Yes E, there are lots of adequate managers around (our training system is turning out MBAs like neatly manufactured pork pies), but a paucity of inspiring leaders. We're missing a whole segment of creative revolutionaries—positive risk-takers—who could really make a difference. Unfortunately, these types don't sit well with the managerial types, so guess who wins and who loses? (And in the end we all do...)


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