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Class dismissed: After almost 30 years, Tennessee Aquarium’s beloved “Mr. Bill” has hung up his hat

Jul 13, 2020

Chattanooga, Tenn. (July 13, 2020) – For more than 25 years, thousands of people who might not have been able to visit the Tennessee Aquarium in person have still experienced profound moments of connection with nature thanks to Bill “Mr. Bill” Haley.

Haley has been a fixture of the Aquarium since it opened on May 1, 1992, when he was one of its first group of volunteer docents. That November, he was hired as a full-time educator. Two years later, he began conducting on-the-road animal programs as the education outreach coordinator, a role he has held for almost 28 years and which earned him the beloved nickname “Mr. Bill.”

On July 10, Haley retired from this role, which he describes as “the best at the Aquarium.” His efforts in educational outreach were central to the Aquarium’s goal of expanding its impact to communities well beyond its downtown campus. It’s a mission that he says was never far from his mind.

“I’ve always viewed this job as community relations,” Haley says. “I feel honored and privileged to have represented the Tennessee Aquarium all these years. I’ve always loved what I was doing and felt that I had the best job at the Aquarium. I still feel that way.”

Haley’s work took him to a vast network of schools, daycares, libraries, assisted-living facilities and community organizations within a 125-mile radius of Chattanooga. His hands-on sessions grew to reach as many as 20,000 people each year — for a total career audience of 500,000 — and required travel in excess of 10,000 miles annually.

In a single day, Haley sometimes presented as many as five programs, all delivered in a relatable, folksy style dripping with good-natured humor that made him as beloved of preschoolers as 90-year-olds. His visits provided opportunities for hundreds of people to go hands-on with a wide variety of the Aquarium’s animal ambassadors, from Chocolate Chip Sea Stars and Leopard Geckos to Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches and an especially-well-traveled Box Turtle.

“Lord knows, that guy has put a bunch of miles in in his lifetime because we’ve had him since the first opening of the Aquarium,” Haley quips.

Especially for screen-saturated students, being physically close to an animal can transform how they view the natural world. That kind of experience lands with an impact that videos or pictures can’t match, says Dr. Brooke Gorman, the Aquarium’s director of science education.

“The more people can connect with nature, the more they learn to value it and feel inspired to conserve it,” Dr. Gorman says. “Whether that connection happens here at the Aquarium or through an outreach program with ‘Mr. Bill,’ being up close with animals or even touching them can really inspire people to protect them.

“Bill has been an important resource for us in reaching out to the community. Like many of the generations of people he’s presented for, we will definitely miss him.”

Although he’s closing the book on his official career, Haley says he plans to come full circle and continue contributing to the Aquarium as a volunteer with the horticulture department. He also will continue to write entries in Naturalist Notebook, a blog documenting his ongoing effort to catalog all the plants and animals he can identify at his property in Soddy-Daisy.

“I’m up to 615 species,” he says, smiling. “Plants and animals. Anything that’s alive.”

Meanwhile, he also intends to invest much of his newfound free time in continuing long-running pursuits that satisfy his naturalistic tendencies. These include leading butterfly counts with the Tennessee Valley Chapter of the North American Butterfly Association and spying Bald Eagles and other birds-of-prey each fall from a hawk lookout atop Flattop Mountain.

“You ever heard the saying, ‘Work gets in the way of your hobbies?’” he asks, chuckling. “Now, the work won’t get in the way of my hobbies quite so much. I’m having fun, and I plan to continue having fun.”

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