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Opinion: WOW reincarnation is here, the Morris way

Eyes & Ears

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Johnny Morris kept us up past our bedtimes.

I have a hunch offices in the Ozarks were a little sluggish the morning after the Sept. 20 tribute ceremony for Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium.

But we had waited 10 years for this.

And there were two former U.S. presidents in the midst, along with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and other political dignitaries, as well as celebrities from Kevin Costner to Luke Bryan and Bill Dance to members of the Earnhardt racing family.

If you were one of the roughly 2,000 people at the Wonders of Wildlife reincarnation celebration, you saw something special.

It’s safe to say the party of the year was under a huge white tent at the corner of Campbell Avenue and Sunshine Street. It felt like we were witnesses to Johnny’s personal party – a four-hour shindig. It was an anti-roast.

But after all, the attraction was a dozen years in the making. And make it he did.

“People ask, ‘What the heck’s taken so long?’” Morris said early in his address to the crowd. “There might have been a few things changed that shouldn’t have. And some things changed for good.”

He had to flash a big grin, and the audience responded to his honesty with applause and laughter. Call it passion or determination or perfectionism, Morris calls it how he sees it and he’s not afraid to remove something to make it right in his eyes. And who’s to question the man signing the checks.

Morris spoke for nearly 20 minutes – which is an eternity for the Johnny Morris of not that long ago. You know, the one who avoided the spotlight and got itchy nervous addressing crowds, even in staff meetings, I’m told.

He’s comfortable with it now. He took the time to recognize the Bass Pro Shops’ staff, conservation workers and construction crews, which spent overnight shifts for days to hit the Sept. 22 opening date.

“It’s been a shared journey. I know there’s been a lot of hard work and sweat by a lot of people,” Morris told the crowd, before asking about 30 staff members and craftsmen by name to stand for recognition.

Much like we’ve seen in the preview tours of the 350,000-square-foot museum and aquarium, the invitation-only gala had Morris’ touch all over it: patriotic moments, barbecue fixings, a live bald eagle and country music. But it was more than a show. There was plenty of opportunity for reflection.

Yes Morris and his foundation dearly want you to buy your $40 ticket and pass through the gate. But we’re not the targets. Maybe we are for the $250 memberships. But this thing will rise or fall on the national audience. WOW officials know that – they’ve arranged for a video advertisement on the side of a building in New York City’s Time Square. In business consultant Bruce Nasby’s Sept. 20 Twitter post of the ad, it spans nearly 20 stories and most of it shows footage of animals.

Several times during the VIP gala, people referenced WOW’s prominence in the conservation and museum world.

If you weren’t careful, you’d be thinking about your place in this world. Nature does that, yes. But Morris has his own way of causing us to realize how small we are in the grand view of created nature and yet at the same time how small this world is by his relationships with seemingly untouchable people. I mean, former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, Theodore Roosevelt’s great-great grandson Simon Roosevelt, and even Franco Beretta, from the firearms family in Italy, were in town for Morris. Sharing their congratulations on video were George H.W. Bush, Kid Rock and Donald Trump Jr. Earlier in the day, Mark Wahlberg toured the aquarium and decided to drop in the shark tank, as did Zinke.

In the crowd were the city officials and businesspeople you’d expect. Each person wore a personalized lanyard, and there was word going around that name badge would provide free access for the first year. I fact-checked that with event media representatives and they said the night’s top-level donors would get free passes.

The tribute went to song for the finale.

Now on stage were 10 country musicians, seven guitars, a kick drum, violin and harmonica all around a campfire – so what if it was propane-fueled and happened to be an 80-degree night. Led by Tracy Byrd, they’d each take a turn to sing solo. I was told the musicians donated their time for the evening.

Over an hour in, Johnny joins them on stage, removes his tie – it was 11:30 p.m. after all – and they all sing Bryan’s “Huntin’, Fishin’ and Lovin’ Every Day.”

That’s the Johnny Morris way.

Springfield Business Journal Editor Eric Olson can be reached at eolson@sbj.net.

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