Wit Ostrenko lost every single bet and argument he ever had with his father, "as tough a Cossack as they get." Yet Ukrainian-born Withold Ostrenko Sr.'s unremitting Darwinian philosophy forged his son's self-reliance, respect for nature and rational leadership. The very skills he has relied on in 25 years as president of the Museum of Science and Industry.
It was an unusual upbringing: ages 2 to 11 year on a dairy farm in upstate New York followed by seven years living on a sailboat. "No electricity, no running water," says Ostrenko, 65. Bird watching and diving replaced TV. Flotsam and jetsam bonfires sparked conversation. Marine carpentry taught laws of science. "No straight lines on a boat," he said.
Ostrenko was 15 before three sisters were born and the family of six became landlubbers again. He joined the U.S. Coast Guard at 22, earned degrees in zoology and ecology, and discovered a knack for consensus building. Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer spoke to the Temple Terrace resident who strategically grew MOSI to the sixth-largest science center in the country, from 90,000 annual visitors to more than 1 million viewing 20 preserved human corpses in Bodies: The Exhibition. Next month, he'll open the world premiere of Sea Monsters Revealed, 18 plastinated sea creatures, including a 53-foot whale shark.
You're a skilled sailor, marathon runner and bird watcher. How did your childhood shape the person you are today.
Ostrenko in Ukrainian roughly translates as sharp witted, taken from the first Ostrenko, who is documented as writing the most insulting letter from one head of state to another. A czar hired a band of Cossacks to battle Turks moving north. The Turkish sultan wrote offering them land if they'd give up the fight. During a lull in battle, the only literate guy rewrote their reply into a poem of nasty insults. So folklore is, don't mess with us, we're tough as nails.
With my father, everything turned into a competition. He sold his interest in the family dairy farm in upstate New York and decided to sail around the world with my mother and I. He bought a 33-foot sailboat and we sailed down to Miami to say goodbye to my aunt and uncle. But it was hurricane season and we never left. He heard about a place with free dockage so we swam to shore, chopped down trees and built a dock. They put me in school and I became very independent and strong, thrown into leadership roles all my life.
Your bio says you are a World Cafe specialist. What is that?
A technique to get critical thinking done simultaneously by harnessing the energy of many people. Put four people at a table — five is too many — and conversation is now like a cocktail party. Take that times 10 tables, talk for 15 minutes, then get each table to share one issue. Now vote on which of 10 issues to solve. We do this in every aspect of MOSI life. Largest group I had was 440 people in Glasgow (Scotland) on how to make the IMAX film industry better.
Prior to MOSI, you spent seven years at the History Museum of Southern Florida in Miami (1980-87). One of your tasks was overseeing some interesting donations. What were they?
I did almost every job there, starting as education director and leaving as assistant director with a $5 million endowment that included about a dozen 80-pound silver bars. They came from Mel Fisher's shipwreck off Key West — real booty, pieces of eight, jewels, candelabra and 20,000 shares of stock worth $800,000. The police sent a helicopter to the Keys to pick it up for us.
MOSI had four directors in seven years before you took over. Care to toot your horn a bit?
We've gone from a county budget of about $1.2 million and 300 family members to over $10 million and 11,000 members. County support is about $500,000 and the rest comes from earned income — admission, tuition, gifts and grants.
In size, we went from about the 200th to sixth largest science center. After this next capital effort, in 2016 we'll probably leapfrog to No. 2.
We've had a lot of firsts: the first permanent Head Start in any museum; the first public elementary school built with a university; and first public library in a museum. That's now converted into a really cool Idea Zone where people turn ideas into reality, like designing a dress or an underwater immersible simulator or a 3-D movie.
We were the first science center to have a separate children's science museum, Kids in Charge, now the largest in country. We just launched a "preschool school" to teach science and math starting at 9 months old to kindergarten. In 2011 we opened a ropes course and last year a zip line to get people to experience science outdoors.
What's next on your agenda?
We're going to turn the book, Abundance, the Future is Better Than You Think by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis, into a major exhibition that will change science centers nationwide. It will create the first STEM Zone, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics enterprise. We'll have a STEM school and showcase 30,000 STEM corporations in the state. Everything related to how STEM can help people rise above the poverty level with clean water, decent food and technology. That's why the book is so powerful, these jobs of the future don't even exist yet. Along with the 3 Rs, how about we work together using the 3 Cs — creativity, collaboration, critical thinking.
Amy Scherzer can be reached [email protected] or (813) 226-3332. Sunday conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.