Beloved ‘Mr. Bill’ Retires with a Fond Following
When the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tennessee, opened on May 1, 1992, one of its first volunteer docents was Bill Haley. Little did anyone know, including Haley, that almost 30 years later, he would be retiring from that same aquarium with such a fond following there and in surrounding communities and towns that he would have earned the nickname “Mr. Bill.”
A few months after coming aboard as a volunteer, Haley was hired by the aquarium as a full-time educator. He then began conducting animal programs on the road as the aquarium’s education outreach coordinator, a calling at which he has excelled for almost 28 years. Haley, now 66, recently made the decision to retire from the role the aquarium says was central to its goal of expanding its impact well beyond the marine center’s downtown Chattanooga campus and into surrounding communities.
“I’ve been known to hundreds of thousands of people, generations, as ‘Mr. Bill’—that in itself is special,” says Haley. “What amazes me is that I’ll meet somebody I’ve never met before, and they’ll call me ‘Mr. Bill.’ I’ve just become that persona over the years. Some of the kids I did programs for when I first came here … I’m probably now doing programs for some of their kids!”
Haley’s community efforts took him to an immense network of schools, libraries, day cares, assisted living facilities, and community organizations within a 125-mile radius of the aquarium. His interactive educational sessions brought Haley before as many as 20,000 people each year—a total career audience of half a million—racking up more than 10,000 miles on the road each year.
He sometimes presented as many as five programs a day, in a style the aquarium describes as “folksy and dripping with good-natured humor.” His personality led him to be beloved by preschoolers and nonagenarians alike. Accompanied by a variety of “animal ambassadors” from the aquarium—including chocolate chip sea stars, box turtles, Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and leopard geckos—Haley’s visits gave the chance for hundreds of people to encounter these creatures away from the aquarium.
“Through this job, I’ve met some of the most fascinating, most interesting, most fun people that you can hope to work with,” he says. “I consider myself very lucky to have been amongst that group of people all these years.”
Though he’s ending his official career at the Tennessee Aquarium, Haley says he plans to return to the attraction on a part-time basis in a similar role as when he started, as a volunteer with the aquarium’s horticulture department.
He’ll also continue writing entries in “Naturalist Notebook,” a blog documenting his ongoing effort to identify all the plants and animals he can—615 so far—on the 3.3-acre plot of land he shares with his wife near Chattanooga.