Dan and Cindy Howard have heard it all before. A scuba diving shop? Here? Really?
They’ve been fielding that query since 1995, when they opened DJ’s Scuba Locker in a non-descript strip mall on Ogden Avenue in Lyons. Shouldn’t you be in Florida? The Bahamas?
Oh, sure, they get there often enough, leading groups of divers seeking underwater adventure and close encounters of the piscine kind. But they’ve built DJ’s into a business that outgrew its 1,600-square-foot Lyons digs long ago.
On Dec. 1, they moved the operation to a long-vacant, two-story building at 9301 Ogden Ave. in Brookfield, stretching their legs inside their new 4,800-square-foot headquarters.
And on Saturday, Jan. 12, the business is hosting a grand opening from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
It was a significant investment. They were renters for the first 17 years of their business lives. On Oct. 31, the Howards bought the building in Brookfield and have transformed what had been a sketchy office operation and one-time music rehearsal space into Brookfield’s scuba central.
“We’ve been looking for a building for the past four years,” said Dan Howard during an interview at the store on Saturday.
The building allows for the business to have a retail store on the first floor in the front. Behind that on the first floor is a large warehouse-like storage area, holding everything from air tanks to rows of wet suits.
Upstairs is a roomy equipment repair area and a large classroom, big enough to host classes of 30 or more.
“Right now we have equipment from three high schools, two fire departments and 10 customers,” he said. “Had that been at our other store, the classroom would have been filled with equipment.”
Howard has been scuba diving since he was a teenager in the late 1970s. He became an instructor in 1986 and opened his shop less than a decade later. Cindy Howard was not always a scuba enthusiast. She joined Dan in the water after they got engaged in 1984.
“We go on trips, and he’d be gone all day,” she said. “So I decided to take classes and join the group.”
DJ’s hosts 5-6 scuba diving trips each year to places you’d normally expect. In 2013, they’ll be heading to the Cayman Islands, the Florida Keys, the North Carolina coast and the Caribbean.
But the business’ bread and butter has a local focus. For years, DJ’s has taught scuba lessons at several suburban YMCAs. And since 2005, they began servicing equipment and training personnel from area fire departments — now 45 in all — instructing them to dive in places like suburban retention ponds and canals.
There are also plenty of nearby sites in which to dive, including Lake Michigan, the site of scores of shipwrecks, such as the wooden schooner the Wells Burt, which sank near Evanston in 1883.
And almost every weekend in the summer since 2000, the Howards have led dives for their students at a specially made “underwater archaeology park” in the Haigh Quarry in Kankakee.
But the one aspect of the business that the Howards, residents of Countryside, are perhaps most proud of is something the couple launched in mid-2012 to help veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan reconnect with their families a world away from the battlefield.
“There veterans have no way of fitting back into their families,” said Cindy Howard, noting that the program is open to all veterans, including ones disabled by wounds. “We teach them scuba and then offer special pricing for their families. It makes the vets a center point for the family again.”
The program had its roots in 2007, when Dan Howard met Capt. John Thompson, president of the Soldiers Undertaking Disabled Scuba (SUDS) program at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Then at the boat show in Chicago, Dan met Chris Maddeford, an Afghanistan veteran who was seriously wounded in battle, and had undergone knee and hip replacements. DJ’s Scuba Locker had a diving pool at the boat show and Maddeford gave it a whirl.
“We got him in the water, and he loved it.”
Maddeford has gone from someone who had trouble lugging his scuba gear to someone with more than 150 dives under his belt who is pursuing his dive master certification.
Operation Scuba is also part of the Wounded Heroes Foundation, a nonprofit group that allows DJ’s to seek grant funding and raise funds to help veterans take part in the program.
“What we lacked without a foundation was the ability to direct funds where they were needed,” he said.
While just a handful of veterans have gone through the program since the business started offering it, Howard is thrilled with the opportunity to help veterans.
“It’s a very fulfilling part of my business,” he said. “I exploit every day the freedom these guys give me. It’s time to give back.”