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MOSI's president not afraid to take chances

Wit Ostrenko knew "Bodies, the Exhibition" was key to righting the South's largest science museum.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published August 21, 2005


Six years ago, Wit Ostrenko saw a German story about a display of preserved cadavers and was convinced of its educational value.

It's a lesson at any age

TAMPA - Wit Ostrenko punched the gas, anger accelerating as a vanload of deflated museum promoters began their two-hour trek back to Tampa.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and the Florida Anatomical Board had just refused to approve an exhibit of posed human cadavers - called "Bodies, the Exhibition" - at the Museum of Science and Industry.

Ostrenko, MOSI's president, was at a low point.

Cell phones heated up inside the van. Arnie Geller, president and CEO of Premier Exhibitions, reassured investors concerned about a stock plunge. Attorneys were on other lines. Tom Zaller, Premier vice president of exhibitions, worked on a press release. No one was sure what it should say.

"Bodies" could draw in millions of dollars, Ostrenko knew. It could right the museum's financial situation and put MOSI on the map.

Later, he would remember being upset. Upset with professors who would let students dissect human cadavers but limit what the public could know about their own bodies.

"Upset at the whole process," said Ostrenko, 58. "Upset at the lack of openness. Upset the Anatomical Board didn't even see the exhibit."

Somewhere near Ocala, somebody asked whether the exhibit was ready to open on schedule. Sure it was. But Saturday was three days off. Much could change. What if someone went to court to shut them down?

That's when Premier attorney Brian Wainger came up with a better question.

Can you open tomorrow?

Ostrenko's mind cleared. He called MOSI's guest service workers, who had been up till 5 a.m. preparing the display.

What would it take to open to the public two days ahead of schedule?

Excitement built in the van.

The answer came back.

Yes. It could be done.

* * *

Friday. The exhibit was in its second day.

Charter buses blocked the parking lot outside the steel-framed museum. The line to see the exhibit, behind a green wall, was at least 50 deep.

Adults couldn't wait to buy $19.95 yellow stickers they'd slap over their beating hearts allowing them entry to see "REAL HUMAN BODIES," as one banner picturing a cadaver in a running pose, promised. Ostrenko sat in his fourth-floor office, thin silver-framed glasses low on his nose, blue gray eyes scanning a yellow note pad, notebooks and papers on the floor. Architectural renderings, on the wall, portrayed MOSI's future.

Ostrenko jotted down notes he would present to members of his board of directors at a biannual meeting that day. He felt good about what had accomplished as MOSI's president.

The nonprofit museum had grown from 9 to 74 acres; assets from $6-million to $107-million; square footage from 65,000 to 318,000. A $12-million "Kids in Charge" children's center opened last month, even though the roof is still being nailed down.

"Nice 15 years," Ostrenko said with a smile.

Most importantly, "Bodies, the Exhibition," opened.

Since Ostrenko took the helm in 1987, MOSI has become the South's largest science museum, with a domed IMAX theater and a half million visitors annually. But a downturned economy followed by terrorist attacks, war and four Florida hurricanes pounded the museum.

It spent more than it took in. There were no cash reserves, no endowment. People got laid off.

Hillsborough County, which owns the museum building and land, pledged more than $2-million to MOSI this year to help build reserves and pay off a line of credit, county budget director Eric Johnson said. The county will double its annual subsidy to $600,000 beginning next year, he said.

It was against that backdrop that "Bodies, the Exhibition" arrived. With it, the museum's 145-employee staff can begin to regrow, along with cash reserves.

After MOSI splits the gate with the exhibit's owner, the museum could earn $1.6-million, minus expenses, roughly 16 percent of its annual revenue, Ostrenko said.

"Major," Ostrenko called it.

* * *

He is a man who always wants to be first, known and respected for his confidence and competitiveness, given to unconventional approaches.

He once dressed in a blue NASA flight suit to persuade GTE company officials to donate $500,000 to an interactive space mission exhibit.

"Show biz," he called his style, in an interview with the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

When a summer camp was caught unprepared, Ostrenko captivated a classroom of children by shutting off the lights and waving a flashlight in the room to describe the universe. He left them spellbound.

"I think he's absolutely tremendous," said 88-year-old Ruth Coleman, a member of the museum board of directors. "I wouldn't have done anything differently."

He makes $160,000 a year.

He has a wife, Peg, 54, and two children, Derick, 19, and Mari, 12.

Only his first name, "Wit," is displayed on his MOSI badge. It's short for Witold, and he is part Czech, part Polish. Born in Brooklyn, he was raised on a dairy farm before his family moved to Miami.

He had dreams of becoming another Jacques Cousteau after his family sailed around the world. He earned a bachelor's degree in zoology from Florida Atlantic University, then joined the Coast Guard.

Afterward, while pursuing a master's degree in aquatic ecology at the University of Miami, he was the first to discover that a clam shrimp species was living in Florida waters.

He never finished his oceanography doctorate. He is whimsical - he keeps a walking stick chewed by beavers and vase of sunflowers in his office - and he is visionary, able to talk about a MOSI that will someday create its own exhibit and IMAX movies, rent space to hotels and bookstores and modernize to meet the interests of today.

Biochemical attacks could be soon added to the coming "Disasterville," which will feature hurricanes and wildfires.

He holds grudges against modern medicine for his own heart attack in 2001.

He ran and swam three times a week. He had annual physicals. Stress tests. He seemed healthy. Ate well. But he suffered 95 percent artery blockage.

The heart attack made him angry. Why didn't doctors warn him? Why didn't they teach him that stress, heredity, nutrition all affected cholesterol? "Why didn't I know what an attack felt like?" Why did he think he pulled a pectoral muscle?

But insurance companies don't pay for preventative CT scans. Doctors don't have time to teach patients about their bodies, he said.

Yet, Ostrenko said, the Anatomical Board - doctors who give future doctors bodies to practice on - told MOSI the public shouldn't see "Bodies" and learn for themselves?

In the MOSI gift shop, Ostrenko recalled Anatomical Board Executive Director Lynn Romrell saying the public could learn just as well from plastic figures.

"Romrell said you can do this looking at a plastic model," Ostrenko said. "Well, here's your plastic model."

He picked up Uncover Human Body, a children's book for sale with raised plastic body parts.

It looked like Operation, the children's game

His speaks with passion. But the experience birthing "Bodies" at MOSI made him pledge to donate his entire body to the University of South Florida, which may soon accept donated bodies the way the University of Florida does now.

USF's anatomy chair, a member of the Anatomical Board, was one of two who voted in support of "Bodies." Romrell, a UF professor and four others, voted against the exhibit.

"That's why I chose them," Ostrenko said.

Ostrenko imagines the possibility that his corneas could be used repeatedly. He already marked up his driver's license to give his organs to transplant recipients should he die suddenly.

He wants forms and information at MOSI that let people donate their bodies to science or their organs to LifeLink of Florida, a nonprofit organ and tissue recovery group.

On an exhibit tour, he talked intricately about how blood vessels, muscles, even the greater omentum, a fold that hangs over the stomach, work. But he also posed in between a body sawed in half lengthwise. He mimicked a skinned specimen's karate pose.

"I'm going to start doing Tai Chi," Ostrenko said.

He said he would have liked to pay deference if he knew the people who lived in the dissected shells of tissue and bone. But he cannot.

The bodies, while legally obtained from China, were unclaimed and unidentified. That was the Anatomical Board's biggest issue with "Bodies."

"I guess I believe in the sacredness of life," Ostrenko said, not long after visiting a room of fetal specimens in jars.

"The body is not a living organism and not a conscious organism. It's left behind and part of the earth again and needs to be returned to the earth. If you can use my body to help someone else, that's immortality."

* * *

Six years ago, Ostrenko saw a German magazine story about a display of preserved cadavers and was convinced of its educational value. He has wanted to bring an exhibit like "Bodies" here since.

He contacted Gunther von Hagens, the German inventor of the "plastination" technique to preserve bodies and proprietor of "Body Worlds," a museum show similar to "Bodies."

First, he said, von Hagens wasn't interested in America. Then Tampa didn't interest him. But seven weeks ago, von Hagens began talking to MOSI, and then, Ostrenko said, Premier jumped into the negotiations. Three weeks ago, Ostrenko said, Premier asked whether MOSI could host the exhibit and open Saturday.

"It was short notice," he said. "But we knew all the issues. We knew what to be prepared for."

Ostrenko did not anticipate involvement from the state Anatomical Board, which oversees cadavers donated to science.

He didn't expect to wind up in Gainesville, waiting for a panel of medical professors to pass judgment on his exhibit.

Opening early was a "brave stance to take," said Brian Tonner, president of the Orlando Science Center.

Ostrenko didn't see that he had much choice.

"In my point of view, that's how I operate MOSI," he said. "I see an opportunity, I take it."

As people waited in line to see "Bodies," a news television camera trained on Ostrenko. A reporter asked whether he was worried state officials would close the exhibit. Before he answered, Ostrenko told the reporter about people like John Makas of St. Petersburg, a man with a horseshoe mustache and a sleeveless Harley Davidson T-shirt, who shook his hand after viewing the exhibit. He thanked Ostrenko twice.

"There's always that threat, always that possibility," Ostrenko said. "But now there would be public outrage if they tried to shut it down."

Times researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at jgeorge@sptimes.com or 813 226-3368.

[Last modified August 21, 2005, 00:51:14]


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