Parkway Corp. chairman and CEO Joseph Zuritsky has a million fish stories, he says. Only his are true. And they're about fish, mostly his fish.
Zuritsky is a preeminent collector of koi, the colorful carp first bred by rice farmers in Japan and now coveted worldwide. The rarest prizewinning koi, the kind Zuritsky calls "ultimate fish," have sold for thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars.
Koi can live a long time — 20 to 30 years isn't uncommon — but not forever. Just like people. Lacking any family heirs to his rarefied obsession, 78-year-old Zurisky has recently begun divesting his treasured pond-dwellers.
A few months ago, he donated to Rowan University the 43-acre Carneys Point, N.J., farm where he bred and sold koi and dissolved his breeding business, Quality Koi Company.
Last fall, Zuritsky released some of his koi into the pond at Shofuso Japanese House and Garden. The Japanophile refers to the West Fairmount Park site as "an absolute gem."
He'll officially unveil his gift at a press conference next week for the Subaru Cherry Blossom Festival (April 7-15), where some of his fish will be on display. Here, the parking magnate explains the genesis, growth, and winding-down of a lifelong passion.
What's your fish story?
I've been involved with koi with for about 50 years. I discovered them as a young man. I was always interested in fish and animals and trees and birds and everything concerned with Mother Nature.
But why koi?
I was very much taken with koi — the fact they could live outdoors, under the ice, in wintertime, and live many, many years.
And then, the artistic part captured me. They've been selectively bred by the Japanese through the years to produce these colors and patterns.
I got really drawn into the quality aspect of them, went out to California, where the hobby had started in the U.S., and ultimately started to travel on a regular basis to Japan and actually became a regular dealer in them.
About 17 years ago, I decided I could produce them myself. We developed this farm [in Carneys Point]. After going through the blood, sweat, and tears, trying to figure out all sorts of unanticipated problems with Mother Nature, we actually did accomplish our goal, which was to produce high-end, really good-quality koi in the U.S.
Breeders can produce a huge number of fish. But very few — almost none —are ultimate fish. I didn't produce ultimate fish. I thought mine were the best fish produced in the U.S.
A few a months ago, I gave the farm to Rowan University. They are going to use it for various types of research and aquaponics.
How did that feel, giving away the farm?
It was bittersweet. No one in my family had any real interest in koi. It was just me. And being 78 years old, you start to think about the end of the line, and what are the kids going to do? It was too much to hand down.
I thought about it long and hard, and decided to give it to someone who could make use of it and create new value from it for society.
And now, the Japanese House and Garden?
I've been involved with the Japanese House and Garden for many, many years. I'm one of the founders of the Friends of the Japanese House and Garden, which recently merged with the Japan America Society.
The Japanese House and Garden were created by the government of Japan and given to the U.S. for the centennial. The house is a 16th-century-style samurai home. It is nicer than anything I personally saw in Japan. The setting is stunning, absolutely perfect.
Why give them your koi?
The fish [there] were really low-end. They were pet store koi. Fortunately, we were able to find someone who would take them. We cleaned them out.
This fall, I delivered about 32 young fish. When the water warms up, I'll be bringing additional fish.
To the Cherry Blossom Festival?
When we have the Shofuso event at the house, I will be bringing some very high-end, older and larger fish from my collection to demonstrate what mature, really beautiful fish look like, different varieties.
You have koi at home?
At 1706 Rittenhouse, we have an outdoor garden and a pond. I have big females there. Female koi are the biggest and most valuable. The males are shorter and thinner. At my office, I have mostly males.
Do you keep the genders separate, so they don't make lots of little koi?
No. Koi don't reproduce at all under those circumstances. They need a little wine …
Do you … eat fish?
I eat fish. And, I fish. I love to fish.
People don't eat koi. Period. Koi are special fish for their beauty. Regular carp are eaten. They have spread all over the world as a food fish. They are bony and the Jewish people eat them as gefilte fish. That is carp. Not koi.