Three years ago, Tom Fetter gave his wife, Jane, an unusual birthday gift valued at a half-million dollars: a redesign of the San Diego Zoo’s Galapagos tortoise exhibit. The couple had been inspired by a recent vacation in the Galapagos Islands and as a 24-year veteran of the zoo’s board, Fetter knew the tortoise habitat was in serious need of repair.
Today, Fetter, now a zoo board member emeritus, focuses his energy on breathing life into the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. It’s a rich repository of historical photographs, records, documents, artifacts, spoken histories, paintings and has a cache of hidden gems. For instance, he recently showed a relative of the late Reuben H. Fleet a job offer letter Fleet wrote to Charles Lindbergh after his trans-Atlantic flight.
Fetter, a Point Loma native, is also instrumental in expanding the San Diego Hall of Champions by adding a permanent sailing exhibit, which opens Nov. 14.
Through his love of sailing, Fetter met La Jollan Jane Trevor when he was only 17 and she was 14. Six years later, they married. He has owned and operated numerous businesses over the years: car washes, gas stations, a ship repair facility, boat and RV sales and service. At age 78, he still goes to work every day, plays tennis and pursues his civic projects. Here is his perspective on San Diego issues:
Q: The zoo expanded into a world-class attraction under your long board tenure. What perils does it face today?
A: All zoos face the disappearance of “wild’ habitat and, with that, the extinction of species or lack of animal imports. They also face challenges in growing attendance. Costs keep increasing while attendance doesn’t. Zoos are expensive to operate. They are labor-intensive and have high fixed costs. They also face competition from TV, which shows animals in action, as opposed to animals in a sterile setting.
Q: What cause are you passionate about?
A: Most pressing and time consuming right now is the San Diego History Center. It’s the most intensive volunteer effort I have ever been involved in.
Q: How much of the two Ts, time and treasure, have you invested in San Diego?
A: I really didn’t start giving back until I was about 40. My work simply did not allow it. Since then, both my time and dollars have increased. I now spend most of my time on nonprofit volunteer work, thanks to some longtime employees who give me that opportunity.
Q: Describe a day in the life of Tom Fetter.
A: I’m up at 5:45 a.m. My dog has a built-in alarm clock. I have breakfast. I play tennis four days a week, usually at 7:30 a.m., then am in the office until 6 p.m. I do desk work after dinner and go to bed at 10 p.m. I usually spend some weekend time at my office.
Q: How is your wife involved?
A: Jane has been a full-time volunteer for more than 50 years. She has chaired the RITZ gala for the Zoo, the America’s Cup Ball, The San Diego Foundation’s 30th anniversary, Birch Aquarium’s Fish Ball, Fleet Science Center’s 30th anniversary and other events. She was Junior League president and served on boards of the S.D. Foundation, Catalina Conservancy, Francis Parker School and on the Stanford Athletic Board.
Q: Who inspired you to give back and how?
A: I wanted to follow my parents’ example of community involvement. With them, it was more time than money. My dad was a doctor and a sole practitioner. He often didn’t even charge his patients. He never invested, and they really had no means to give. My father was involved with the San Diego Blood Bank, the Museum of Man and was a longtime trustee and later president of the San Diego Zoo. My mother was active with the Children’s Home, the symphony and Wednesday Club.
Q: What amazing experiences have you had?
A: Being happily married for 55 years and enjoying work at age 78. … Basically, I enjoy every day.
Q: What is something no one knows about Tom Fetter?
A: When I was in pre-med at Stanford, my father got me a job working in the morgue at Sharp Hospital.
Also, Dave Guard, who founded the Kingston Trio, was my classmate at Stanford. I played bongos with him at the very beginning.
Q: You raised children who have strong work ethics and values. Son Trevor stepped in as CEO to rehabilitate Tenet Healthcare when it was under investigation. Daughter J.J. was an America’s Cup helmsman, a two-time Olympic medalist and the first woman inducted into the Sailing World Hall of Fame. Margi was a Stanford crew team captain. What is your parenting secret?
A: Jane, genes, stability and good luck.
Q: What are the greatest unmet needs in San Diego today?
A: Civic leadership that is community focused rather than obligated to factions, an assured water supply, an enlightened relationship with Tijuana and preservation of a military presence.
Q: As a founder and longtime board member of the San Diego Port Tenants Association, what is your vision for the port?
A: I’m not a fan of government bureaucracy. Much of what the port does could probably be better done by outsourcing.
Q: The San Diego History Center chose our tuna industry as its 2012 “History Maker.” Why?
A: It was a long and colorful part of our history. The industry was killed by U.S. regulation and extension of territorial limits along western Central and South America. Most of the fishing fleet became foreign-flagged to avoid the regulation and controversy. There are still about 40 tuna seiners with U.S. flags represented by the American Tunaboat Association, located here in San Diego. Two of the three large canners are also headquartered here (Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea). It is a wonderful story.
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