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Shedd Aquarium Gala Sells Out for Second Year in a Row

The Great Lakes-focused event galvanized attendees, driving a new record level of giving for Shedd

October 30, 2023

Shedd President and CEO Dr. Bridget Coughlin with her husband and several supporters and attendees at The Great Lakes Gala

Photo by: Brenna Hernandez

CHICAGO — Shedd Aquarium hosted a sold-out black-tie fundraising gala on Saturday, Sept. 30, raising nearly $3 million – a new record – to support the aquarium’s education, conservation research, environmental restoration and advocacy efforts. The Great Lakes Gala underscored the surprisingly vibrant, highly connected and incredibly vital ecosystems found throughout the Great Lakes by highlighting their importance economically ecologically and culturally. Hosted by the aquarium’s Board of Trustee, the evening hosted nearly 600 of Chicago’s philanthropic leaders and stewards for our shared blue planet.

Alongside planning a program that was steeped in both inspiration and connectedness, gala co-chairs Molly Hamman and Gillian Stoettner also had the special pleasure of standing with Shedd Aquarium leaders to recognize their parents, Mary and Stephen Byron Smith, for more than 60 years of support of Shedd’s mission as trustees, volunteers and advocates.

“For centuries, the Great Lakes have reminded us of our innate, biological connection to each other, to nature and to the world around us,” said Shedd President and CEO Dr. Bridget Coughlin. “Tonight, we are also reminded of the immense connectedness of the Chicago community, whose generosity will help us continue to steward this globally significant treasure for generations to come. And I can’t think of a more fitting evening to honor our friends Mary and Stephen Smith, for their unwavering support of Shedd that has inspired a next generation via their daughters – our exceptional co-chairs, Molly and Gillian.”

Guests began their evening to the sounds of warm jazz played by Lake Effect as they traversed Shedd gardens. The path wound up to the aquarium’s outdoor Stingray Touch habitat, where they could pause to watch and cownose rays glide through the habitat and even put their hand in the water to touch their silky backs. Wooden oars and nautical touches from Revel Décor, lighting by South Investment AV and drapery from Drape Kings transformed the outdoor terrace into a grand and photo-friendly celebration of all things Great Lakes. Upon entry, attendees could enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres while meeting and mingling with Shedd ambassador animals like turtles, birds and skinks.

Later, guests found their seats in the amphitheater of the Abbott Oceanarium for a special, one night only aquatic presentation that featured a tribute to the evening’s honorees, Mary and Stephen Byron Smith, in recognition of their collective 60 years of volunteer leadership at Shedd Aquarium. This tribute, made by their daughters and event co-chairs, Molly Hamman and Gillian Stoettner, touched on a family legacy of board service at Shedd that dates back to Harold Byron Smith, who joined the Board in 1954. Mr. And Mrs. Smith spoke of their love for and dedication to the Aquarium in a touching speech that brought the audience to their feet.

The evocative performance that followed brought the focus back to the natural and national treasure of the Great Lakes. A narrator and roving musicians weaved among animals and caretakers to track the journey of a single drop of water as it traversed all five Great Lakes.

Finally, a rousing paddle raise led by Daniel Campbell of Raising Paddles concluded the presentation. This constituted the only fundraising moment of the evening and raised more than $500,000 for the aquarium, which was then matched with a $500,000 gift from an anonymous donor. This generous match and the momentum it generated resulted in the single most successful paddle raise in Shedd Gala history, topping $1 million.

Following the presentation, dinner was served in spaces around the aquarium galleries and on Shedd’s picturesque terrace, surrounded by animals or enjoying the incredible views of Lake Michigan. After a three-course meal, guests were invited to explore the aquarium, including a special sturgeon enrichment demonstration in the At Home on the Great Lakes gallery.

Guests could also mingle and dance to MixTape on the tented Lakeside Terrace with the skyline dazzling behind them or relax and enjoy late night bites and dessert in the Bubble Net Lounge. Freshwater researchers Dr. Karen Murchie and Dr. Melissa Youngquist offered engaging demonstrations of their work that includes acoustic telemetry tracking of migratory sucker populations and a surprising look into the life of the ephemeral wetlands that are key to the food web in our region.

Event vendor details: Revel Décor, Sound Investment AV, Drape Kings, Mix Tape and Lake Effect

The Great Lakes Gala is presented in part by benefactor sponsors: Mary S. and James T. Hamman, Gillian S. and Robert E. Stoettner, Jeannie and Christopher Byron Smith, Kimberly Duchossois, Abbott, AbbVie, GATX, ITW, Northern Trust, Anna and Bob Livingston, and Tami and Rich Frain

VISUALS: Gala photos and videos can be viewed and downloaded here:

Photo credit: See caption sheets