October 23, 1925 – October 20, 2009
One of the greatest American Tropical Fish Addicts, an Icon of the world-wide ornamental fish hobby, a pioneer of the retail and wholesale ornamental fish trade in America has left us, has gone from the most beautiful, educational and wise hobby on planet earth and suddenly nothing is as it once was…
October 23, 1925 – October 20, 2009
One of the greatest American Tropical Fish Addicts, an Icon of the world-wide ornamental fish hobby, a pioneer of the retail and wholesale ornamental fish trade in America has left us, has gone from the most beautiful, educational and wise hobby on planet earth and suddenly nothing is as it once was…There is suddenly emptiness in the hobby, a man who has done so much for people around the globe to enjoy life, nature and fishes is un-replaceable gone. There will be no second Ross that is for sure.
I want to write a few words about this unforgettable Fish Man as I got to know him, a little about our work together and our friendship which grew from the very begin nearly a half a Century ago. And anyone who likes to read his resume please go to http://www.rosssocolof.com/ and to read about condolences from around the world should go to www.google.com and just insert Ross Socolof, there are thousands of links. But the most important suggestion I want to give to every fish addict or fish lover: Read his book Confessions of a Tropical Fish Addict – Ross Socolof, 1996. It is amazing. It is a must. It is about the hardship this hobby was built on…
I will never forget when we first met 47 years ago. I had come to America to work and study. Being in fishes and aquarium plants since my birth and my mother Amanda Flora Hilda Bleher since her birth, and growing up among fishes and plants in part with Indians in untouched nature, I was meant to become a fish-man like Ross, or a man with fishes and a nature lover. Not having money for a University I offered my services to some wholesaler in the USA to hire me. I was only 17 but already able to teach something about aquarium plants and fishes. And from the hundreds of resumes sent out the Cohen brothers in New York hired me. That income had to pay for my study…
And while working at their Elsberry’s Fish Farm in Florida the general manager and excellent breeder, Joseph Cooley, introduced me to Ross who had just sold his Gulf Fish farm to Herbert R. Axelrod. Ross came to me while I was washing tanks and said to me “You are a bright guy and come from a well known aquatic family that is why Axelrod wants to hire you, and he wants you to built up an aquatic plant farm for Gulf and to breed fishes. I don’t know if you want to do that, maybe not, but Axelrod has asked me to talk to you as he wants you to meet him”. At the time I had not known Axelrod personally except for having seen some of the TFH-magazines, but later I understood the message Ross was trying to pass on to me.
Ross, as I got to know him soon, was incredible intelligent and often with very few words one was able to get the entire picture of his message – and fast. Ross had an incredible charisma and we worked together on Gulf Fish Farms for about two years learning from each other. We learned to appreciate each other very much. He treated me like a father, or better. I did built up a complete new plant house for Gulf and raised aquatic plants in masses, but wanted to breed fishes as well and Ross said “why not, let me see if you can compete with Hank Hansen, America’s best tropical fish breeder”. It was a challenge and Hank, who was originally a sailor and cook from Denmark, speaking German very well working for several years with Ross, became very suspicion. I started before anyone else every day at 5 am (best time to see if your fishes have laid eggs), Hank was the second every day and came into my breeding house to look and some times also to give me some advice. But eventually we three became very close friends and worked very hard. Ross invited me almost every weekend to their house in Sarasota and his wife Loise cooked so well. On Christmas they always gave me presents and treated me like their other children. I was a marvellous time and I will never forget it. I remember Gulf Fish Farms and Gibsonton, Sarasota and Tampa, Florida, like t was yesterday and it is nearly a half a century ago… Also my trip on Fred Cochu’s DC plane Ross had send me to help to catch the first freshwater dolphin in the Amazon for a public aquarium and taking care of it in the plane all the way back keeping it wet in a special wooden box lined with plastic uninterrupted. It was an amazing adventure and I trained it for the Steinhardt Aquarium in California for month Ross giving me full authority to take care of it, he trusted me all the way… (I trained it better then any marine mammal – but that is another story)
The crew of Gulf Fish Farms August 1964, from the left: Heiko Bleher, Hank Hansen and Ross Socolof (with the cap) and the rest of the crew. In the back the building I designed.
Ross taking the Inia geoffrensis – the Amazon Boto – out of the wooden box I had transported it in all the way from the Amazon. It is an amazing intelligent animal and Ross and myself were the only ones he took food from. This was at Gulf Fish Farms 1964. Thank you Ross for having had this great opportunity and experience from you.
After two years I finished my studies (those I wanted to learn) and left Ross and Gulf Fish Farms in 1965, although Axelrod had asked me to stay, because I had been breeding over 10,000 angelfish weekly which were ready to sell within 30 days. And quite a few new fish species no one had been able to breed before, such as Nematobrycon palmeri and N. lacortei, Hyphessobrycon roadwayi and H. eos, as well as many other, mostly characoids (my speciality next to angels at the time), but also new Guppy strains and other life bearing fishes. Ross said to me before I left (I will always remember this incredible compliment from him) “Heiko, you have become the best breeder I have ever seen or heard of – and don’t tell Hank – you have to be independent and open your own place in Brazil” and I did. (I founded Aquarium Rio the same year in Rio de Janeiro.)
We have lost contact for a few years because of my constant field and collecting trips and only after I moved Aquarium Rio to Germany end of 1967 we corresponded again. Ross wrote to me about the problem he had with Axelrod (Ross had already for-seen that, from the very begin) and how Axelrod wanted to cheat him but that he got out of the deal not loosing everything like most of the others which had a Miracle stock. And I learned also that Ross was the only one Axelrod was unable to cheat he (Axelrod) stopped talking to him and erased his name from any publication or published texts… (like he did with my name also later).
This picture, taken by me in August 1964, should have won a photo-price of the year award. It is the only one. And it tells a whole story. Ross already knew then that Herbert R. Axelrod (standing) wanted to cheat him (as Axelrod did with so many around the globe, including myself) after he had sold his Gulf Fish farm to Axelrod. To cheat him out of his money with worthless stock…
We stayed always in close contact. I was back in America between 1976 and 1981 almost monthly, and we communicated, talked met frequently. Ross introduced me to Ekk Will Waterlife Resources, Tim and Mike Hennessy, the new fish farm giants and all the great people at the Florida Tropical Fish Farmers Association in the 1980s, of which he was a (or better the) founding member. And when they started to give their yearly fish show in Florida I attended and judged also fishes at several times. And one of those visits I was able to convince Ross and his wife Loise, to come to visit me in Europe and to see Italy and the first Italian International Aquarium and pet Exhibition in Florence. And they came both, in 1989. In Germany we had a great time not always talking about fishes but we also visited old friends like Hans Schmidt founder of Tropicarium Frankfurt and Eduard Schmidt-Focke, Hans’s brother, the famous discus breeder. We ate Frankfurter Rippchen mit Sauerkraut and as starters Handkäse mit Musik. Loise and Ross loved it.
From Frankfurt Airport we went with Monique Nicolai, Loise, Ross and I to the Café Kranzler, the oldest one in Frankfurt which had survived two World Wars and ate delicious pastry – as only the old traditional German bakers can make – such as Schwarzwälder Kirchtorte, or Käsesahne Torte. In the evening I prepared a delicious diner at my former house in the forest of Frankfurt. (Ross’s glasses can be seen on the left and Loise’s hair.) And I had invited the largest fish wholesaler from France (Didier Gendre) and Italy (Renzo Pierucci) to meet them at my house, to talk about fishes –what else. I drove with Loise and Ross to Venice and Florence and we had the greatest time overlooking this beautiful old city where the fish exhibition took place (Aquarium Rio participated also). And every evening we went to another great Italian Trattoria or Osteria and ate the greatest pasta and typical local dishes these only fantastic Italian chefs can prepare… And naturally I invited every evening to join us other fish or plant wholesalers to be able to introduce them to Ross and Loise. In this particular (lower) one it was Holger Windelov from Tropica with his wife Tov and Born Lausen from Eldorado (both from Denmark). (These photos are form October-November 1989.)
I also never forget our drive to lovely Italy (were I would later move to) and besides the Exhibition in Florence Ross said Loise had never seen Venice and he wanted to show her and we went with the gondolas across the channels of Venice, ate at the Caffé Florian on the Piazza San Marco, which had opened in 1720. It was the favourite place of Giacomo Casanova, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, to name a few, and now also Loise and Ross Socolof, it was unforgettable. We drove off the beat track across northern Italy to Asolo and Bassano de Grappa, I showed them castles and fortresses to places tourists do not go and both enjoyed it very much and always when he wrote or talked later always recalled all the lovely moments we had spend together. And I was pleased to have been able to do also something for Ross and Loise in Europe.
But I visited Ross and Loise in Florida many more times in their nice house near Sarasota beach. Also later when he worked only with ancient fish and nature books. He had a whole garage full of racks of books and I was able to get books from him no one had. And most of those he gave me as a present. That was Ross. And I recall in this same year, 1989, the ICC I took place and Ross was the one who told the members of the ACA that the first international Cichlid Congress cannot take place without Heiko and I was invited and gave a couple of (very long) presentations to a giant audience (I think it was the largest, or maybe two years at the second ICC were even more attendees). Also the 1990 meeting of the Florida Tropical Fish Farmers Association in Orlando will stay in my mind forever. Ross had made sure I was invited and to give a talk about the Aquarium Industry, past present and future, but more through it was the big day for Ross to announce the three other giants to be placed in the hall off fame, probably the highest and most prestigious award any American fish or plant man could ever receive. To be called Sir in the UK, by the Queen, is to my good feeling not as much worth as being in the Hall of Fame of the fish world for eternity. It was the great American plant pioneer Albert Greenberg (another very dear friend of Ross and mine), the pioneer of fish imports in the US, Fred Cochu and Herbert Woolf one of the first to do large scale fish farming in Florida which were honoured. (Ross was elected two years later, which I was also honoured to assist.) It was so outstanding, Ross’s speech, that everyone stood up and it was one of the longest standing ovations I every remember.
Ross’e talk in February 1990 at the FTFFA, presenting the three Hall of Fame awards was breathtaking and unbelievable beautiful (top). Ross talking to the other three icons of the American Fish and Aquatic plant industry: Fred Cochu (left),Ross (centre), Albert Greenberg (right) and Herbert Woolf. And Ross filmed it all (I want a copy of that film…)
I do not recall how many times we communicated, exchanged great thoughts about mutual friends and those who had passed away, like Pierre Brichard, Jean Pierre Gosse or Hank Hansen, about our trips, about discoveries and always giving me so much credit (thank you Ross). Also we communicated together with one of our greatest friends, Jacques Géry (the late Characoid expert of the world) who had named Hyphessobrycon socolofi after Ross, one of the most sold South American tetras today. And so many more like Harry Rambarran and Rosario Lacorte, all great people not to forget. I only have enjoyable memories of our often get-together times. I think our last meeting was at another ACA convention a couple of years before another friend, George Barlow, died. We had diner together and George was talking about his latest book (I have a signed copy) and cichlids and Ross and I listened quietly, also about Georg’s words about religion… But I must say it was on every occasion a immense pleasure, I always learned from Ross, more then I did from my father or probably anyone else (except nature, which was always my best teacher). Here a few more links of some of the meetings, also in Louisville, Kentucky in July of 1992 see:
or also at the 1st International Cichlid Conference in Orlando, Florida in August 1989, see:
And also our meeting in Tampa in 1995 and judging fishes, was great:
And Jodi, One of Ross’ daughter (I call her my sister), visited me in Germany as well, she is a great singer (among other things)
Ross’s book Confessions of a Tropical Fish Addict, which he gave me also as a present on April 27, 1996 had next to his well known fish-like signature the dedication “ For Heiko Bleher; a very old and good friend who I respect and admire”. Not only that honoured me very much as well, but also in several parts of this probably the most complete historical book on the American fish-people (and world-wide importers, exporters, breeders and pioneers), he mentions my name and talks highly about my work. And in particular on page 209 where he writes “My friend Heiko Bleher, probably today’s most successful tropical fish collector/explorer…” Coming from Ross this is more then an honour, from an Icon as he was (and always will be – specially for all Americans) it is the greatest honour a man could receive, not all those hundreds and thousands of trophies and recognitions I have packed up and hanging on the wall of my office can match those words of Ross. Thank you Ross.
Loise (Ross’s wife) introduces him in his book with the words: “You are about to have a ‘conservation’ with a man who is a lucky, inquisitive, and rare individual. He has spend his lifetime doing exactly what he loves doing…” And in that we have also been very similar, if not identical. He writes on the first page “The important message I am trying to give is to live your life fulfilled. It is the only life you are likely to have. Any one spending a lifetime unhappy and uninspired during their working hours is a fool”, to which I could not agree more…
Ross I know you went to a Fish-heaven and I also know I will follow you to the same, or a very similar place, to a still pristine water habitat on this globe of which less and less exists or remains untouched. But we both were fortunate to visit many of such places (which are history) and with your lovely daughter Jody which has always been like a sister to me, we will make sure you will be soon with those you loved most…
Ross, the Fish-world and especially all fish addicts will remember you forever, I do not think you will ever be forgotten as long as this beautiful fish-hobby exists and as long as there are people who care for nature and the aquatic environment Ross Socolof will be there – unforgettable…
Italy, 30 October 2009