Despite the sudden death of executive director Jeff Swanagan, it was business as usual Monday at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Colleagues said that's what Swanagan would have wanted.
Despite the sudden death of executive director Jeff Swanagan, it was business as usual Monday at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Colleagues said that's what Swanagan would have wanted.
Swanagan, 51, suffered an apparent heart attack and died Sunday at his Powell home. He had returned to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium last July to take the executive director position from Jerry Borin, who was retiring.
For Swanagan, it was a homecoming. Swanagan started his zoo career in Columbus in 1980 before moving on to become the deputy zoo director at Zoo Atlanta in 1987 and the CEO of the Florida Aquarium in 1998. In 2002, Swanagan led the construction of the world's largest aquarium in Atlanta.
During a news conference Monday, Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the zoo, talked about meeting Swanagan in 1980. Swanagan started the zoo's education department.
"Today I lost a son, but the zoo will go on," Hanna said.
Upon starting his job as executive director last year, Swanagan coined the term, "Touch the heart to teach the mind," Hanna said.
Zoo staff wore buttons sporting that statement Monday. Hanna said Swanagan's vision for the zoo would live on through programs such as the new Animals on Safari show that features pets adopted from the Humane Society.
"It's a great loss to this zoo, but we will carry on Jeff's vision," he said.
The zoo's board of directors met Monday and appointed assistant zoo director and chief operating officer Dale Schmidt as interim director.
Board member Connie Woodburn said the board hasn't had time to make plans beyond the appointment of Schmidt.
"We've had less than 24 hours," she said. "Obviously it's critical that the zoo continue to operate. Right now our priority is to take care of Jeff's family and the staff."
Patty Peters, associate zoo director of community relations, said an e-mail was sent to staff about Swanagan's death at 9 p.m. Sunday. A staff meeting was held at 9 a.m. Monday.
"Everyone was stunned," Peters said.
Swanagan is survived by his wife and five children. They released a statement saying: "We are so extremely blessed for having our dad and husband a part of our lives for so many years. His incredible love for the central Ohio community, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the Ohio State University is only surpassed by his love for all of us. Our Jeff always said he has it 'better than he deserved.' We will always remember his selflessness, love and compassion."
A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Thursday at New Hope Church, 4739 Powell Road, located next to the zoo. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to the zoo.