As one of The Florida Aquarium’s original employees, Rita Coley had a “front row seat” for its opening. As The Aquarium evolved, so did her career. Now, 25 years later, she remains passionate about her work and surroundings.
The housekeeping manager exemplifies Aquarium President-CEO Roger Germann’s goal that every employee, regardless of task, be committed to the aquarium’s mission to “protect and restore the blue planet.”
“I think it is so important how we can change the environment,” she told me. “We all keep striving to educate our guests.”
Coley and her team are responsible for keeping The Aquarium in ship-shape, but she stresses that engaging with the public is a key responsibility.
“I remember once [the late former President and CEO] Thom Stork having a meeting where he told us if we make sure to take care of our guests, they will take care of us. He said, ‘If you see someone stranded in the parking lot, help them.’ ”
Sure enough, shortly afterward, as Coley left work, she came across a family with a dead battery. She got them a jump and made sure they left safely. “You feel good when you can help people.”
That kind of consideration is all part of Coley and her team’s daily routine.
“I always emphasize respect and being a team player. You need to respect the people you meet and the people you work with. And you always must remember we [Aquarium employees] are all part of the same team.”
Coley, a Tampa native and Middleton High School graduate, went to mortuary school and actually began her career working in funeral homes. (“I saw a lot of dead people.”)
She decided that wasn’t for her and was working at the front desk of a downtown hotel, when her boss was hired by The Florida Aquarium, as it neared completion.
“He told me he couldn’t guarantee me the job, but thought I should apply, that I would do well.”
She got the job and never regretted it. At first, she worked in reservations, assigning specific times to tickets to keep crowds manageable.
But the original workers had to be adaptable. “Whatever needed to be done, you would do it. If you needed to drive a tram, you drove a tram.” (When The Aquarium opened, a tram would transport visitors from the parking lot.) It was fun.”
All this created a esprit de corps among employees, so it was painful when financial shortfalls in the early years led to jobs being eliminated.
She said her only bad days at The Aquarium were the two “Black Mondays” when a number of employees had to be let go.
But The Aquarium quickly corrected its financial course and began attracting robust crowds.
She could see the guests’ enthusiasm grow and feel a sense of momentum at the Aquarium that continues to this day.
“We began bringing in different animals, always showing interesting things. We had the white alligator that was really popular.”
She remembers one special event when the crowd practically “wrapped around the Aquarium.”
Eventually she became housekeeping manager, where her attention to detail and concern for others has helped her excel. Her staff is responsible for cleaning everything but the exhibits.
“We don’t clean the animal areas because we use different chemicals. But if an animal that is being displayed outside the exhibits has an accident, we’ll take care of it.”
“Guest do appreciate what we do. Sometimes they want to give us a tip. But I tell them to put the money in the wishing well that goes to the animals’ care. We don’t accept tips.”
She said, “I get a kick out of the kids. They’ll come up to us and say, ‘How’s your day going’?”
Most days, Coley can reply her day is going splendidly,
“There were a few tough times in the early years, but now, thank God, things are going wonderfully. I think having strong leadership has been so important.”
Also important is an institutional mission that makes her proud of her job:
“The Aquarium always is working on how we can protect environment. We want to make things better.”
Joe Guidry, a Tampa native, worked for The Tampa Tribune Company for more than 40 years. He joined The Tampa Tribune Editorial Department in 1984, later became Deputy Editorial Page editor and took over as Opinion Page Editor in 2008, a position he held until the Tribune ceased publication in May 2016. Read more...