It was pouring rain in Wales the day Gregory Farrington received the phone call asking him to take the helm as executive director of the California Academy of Sciences.
Farrington and his wife Jean had planned a yearlong trip through Europe, and he had recently completed his eight-year term as the 12th president of Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Penn., where he raised the bar for the quality of students, doubled the number of fully endowed faculty chairs and raised more than $250 million for the college.
The self-proclaimed East Coast family man — who holds several degrees and also dozens of patents — said he never expected he would end up in California directing what has become the second-most visited attraction in the state.
But the Academy threw the bait out in the form of a $484 million dollar budget to overhaul the 155-year-old icon, and after some contemplation, Farrington cut his trip short to start his tenure at the museum in February 2007.
“I remember coming out here. Our temporary office was on Howard Street. I remember seeing [the Academy] and thinking, ‘Ah! What did I get myself into?’” he said, laughing.
Farrington was faced with a monumental task — overseeing the relocation of the museum from the temporary home it adopted in SoMa after the original building sustained structural damage resulting from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. After a decade in the making, the Academy was returning to a new sustainable building in Golden Gate Park — making it the most environmentally friendly museum in the country.
The new “chief penguin,” as Farrington calls himself, had eight months to make sure 20 million specimens and 38,000 live animals were transported safely to the Steinhart Aquarium, the Morrison Planetarium, the Kimball Natural History Museum, the four-story living rain forest and many other exhibits before doors opened Sept. 27, 2008.
And while the Academy’s reopening marked a major triumph for Farrington, it’s just one of many accomplishments on the chief penguin’s résumé.
The oldest of three siblings growing up in upstate New York, Farrington credits his successes to the spark of a passionate high school chemistry teacher and the enduring support of his parents.
His teacher, who loved chemistry, held him accountable for pushing him to learn more. He became particularly interested in how to store energy, modestly relating his interests to how a battery works, while it was clear they were much more complicated.
“It’s just one of those things where people along the way say, ‘You can do amazing things,’” he said.
His parents raised him to believe he could do anything. Farrington’s mother, he said, didn’t gently ask him if he was ready to fly, but instead pushed him out of the nest and said, “Your wings will work. Start flapping.”
Farrington flapped his way to a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Clarkson University (1968), followed by a Ph.D. in chemistry from Harvard University (’72). After working as a chemist, he went on for a second Ph.D. from the School of Sciences in Sweden at the University of Uppsala (’84).
Farrington also holds more than two dozen patents — most of which, he explained, have to do “with stuff that glows.” He has also authored more than 100 articles in the fields of solid state chemistry, electrochemistry and education.
Following several university appointments, he served as the dean of the University of Pennsylvania for eight years before moving to Bethlehem — his last post before heading west for The City.
Despite this litany of scientific and academic success, he claims his biggest accomplishment is raising his son, Timothy, a graduate from Harvard University and Cambridge University who lives in New York with his wife, a lawyer. He works for The New Yorker magazine.
“I think we did OK,” Farrington said of his son. “He studied classics. Good thing she’s a lawyer.”
“We” refers to his wife, Jean, who works for the Academy, too, as assistant director of lifelong learning. They met while he was at Charleston University and married nearly 39 years ago.
“Back when I had hair,” he said. “I always tell people I married up.”
The two spend their weekends hopping on a bus and exploring The City or driving to areas along the coast “where it’s sunny; what California is supposed to be like.”
Farrington was excited to see the West Coast sun shining on the Academy’s living roof on a recent morning — “Look at all this!” he said, thrilled about the crop growing a few inches taller than the last time he saw it.
The Academy has attracted more than 2 million visitors since it opened last September, and Farrington has had a firm grasp on its success.
While it’s not common to see a penguin fly in California, Farrington’s mother was right; this chief penguin has wings that work.
It has been almost a year since the California Academy of Sciences reopened, anticipating that its aquarium, planetarium, natural history museum and the four-story rainforest would attract more than a million people — but it was a little off.
It attracted more than 2 million.
Instead of generating the expected 1.7 million visitors, the $484 million Academy has lured about 2.2 million people in its first year. Its after-hours weekly nightlife program attracts about 3,000 visitors to each event.
To celebrate the success of the museum’s first 365 days in its new home, the Academy is hosting a weekend of festivities
Chinese lion dancers believed to dispel evil spirits will start the weekend extravaganza on Saturday, Sept. 26. The party will continue throughout the weekend with a wild cat presentation featuring a mountain lion, cheetah, lynx and caracal, Nigerian masquerade drummers, an opportunity to learn about plant species on the living roof, and a snake demonstration with the 6-foot-long red-tailed boa, Balthazar.
And the Academy has more in store.
In October, it will display some of its “scariest” specimens, including the death’s head hawkmoth — the skull-patterned moth featured in “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s also planning “Creepy Crawly Week,” where visitors will “face their fears” with lessons about tarantulas, scorpions, snakes and alligators.
In spring 2010 the Academy will open its mammals exhibit, which will showcase the world of extinct and living mammals, including examples such as a miniature bat the size of a bumble bee and animals who are pregnant for almost two years.
— Kamala Kelkar
Favorite movie: “Casablanca,” or any Humphrey Bogart film
In the middle of reading: “The Wild Trees” by Richard Preston and a book about sharks and shark attacks
Favorite exhibit at the museum: How the rain forest fuses with the aquarium
Best way to spend Sunday afternoon: Exploring The City with his wife.
Favorite San Francisco restaurant: Slanted Door, among many others
Favorite patent: For working “with stuff that glows.”
Individual not living he would choose to have dinner with: “My father, so I could show him everything I’ve done. If not him, then Charles Darwin.”
Biggest fear: Humans are not smart enough to sustain our population in the future.
Talent he would most like to have: Musical ability. “I’d like to be able to sing.”
What he considers his greatest achievement: Raising his son
California Academy of Sciences
Where: 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park
Hours: 9:30 a.m.- 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday
Price: $24.95 adults; $14.95 children (7-11); $19.95 youth (12-17), students (18+) and seniors (65+); children 6 and younger free. The Academy offers free admission to the general public on the third Wednesday of every month.