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dr. lee simmons took what was little more than small collection of animals on the grounds of an aging city park and turned it into an internationally recognized zoo with many one-of-a-kind features and world-class research facilities. on the eve of his 50th anniversary with omaha’s henry doorly zoo and aquarium, “doc,” his wife marie, and friends and associates look back on his legendary career.
on Dr. Lee SimmonS’S 50th anniverSary with omaha’S henry DoorLy Zoo anD aquarium, frienDS anD aSSociateS chooSe Different but equaLLy impreSSive worDS to DeScribe him: AWESOME, EXTRAORDINARY, ENERGETIC, BRILLIANT. but SometimeS SimmonS can’t be SummeD up in juSt one worD.
“there is no ego. there’s an awful lot of talent backing him, but he’s not looking for the limelight,” said barry james, american interstate bank chairman, whose association with Simmons is both professional and personal; he’s the son of Lawrence and jeannette james. “i’m a strong supporter, as is my family, of anything Doc wants to do.” Simmons’s local legacy began in December 1966, when he relocated to omaha from the columbus (ohio) municipal Zoo, where he had spent three years as mammals curator, staff veterinarian and assistant director. the new job at the henry Doorly Zoo, resident veterinarian, was a departure from the politics that were prevalent at his previous post.
“i’ve said it before: the Dvm after his name is for Doctor of veterinary medicine, but i refer to Doc as ‘Dreamer – visionary – maker,’” said john boyer, an attorney with fraser Stryker pc LLo who also serves as the president of the omaha Zoo foundation and was the long-time president of the omaha Zoological Society. “and he has a great ability to “when we first came here, i probably thought it communicate what he’s dreamed up.” would be maybe 10 or 15 years. my goal was to become a zoo director and one of the reasons we “he’s multidimensional in so many ways. his came here was that they were looking for a intellectual curiosity might be higher than any other veterinarian, but our director who was here already person i’ve ever known,” said edson bridges of had a bit of reputation for not staying hooked into one place for very long,” Simmons said. “So i was bridges investment counsel, who has worked with looking at a new zoo that was being built, that there Simmons throughout many of his 50 years with the was a possibility that there might be an opening zoo. “in general, if someone wants to know before terribly long, and it was closer to home and something, he’s going to find the answer to it. he’s the culture that marie and i were both raised in.” very courteous and he’s patient when he explains things…and he’s a superb storyteller.” the couple were college sweethearts who met at central States college (now university of central “a lot of people are brilliant, but they don’t have the oklahoma) in edmond, oklahoma. marie Giem heart and soul that Lee has,” jeannette james said. was a home economics major and Lee Simmons was She and her husband, Lawrence, have been friends in pre-veterinary studies, but the two ended up with Lee and marie Simmons so many years that she taking a chemistry class and a water can’t recall when or how they met. “i think another safety/lifesaving class together. reason Lee is so successful is that he not only loves animals – every single kind of animal – he loves “what should have been a tip-off of things to come is people.” that on our very first date (other than a coke date in the Student union), i caught a copperhead,” “Lee has had an extremely good ability to have an Simmons recalled, adding that his original interest outstanding vision and know how to execute to before switching to veterinary medicine was in accomplish that vision,” local community leader and herpetology. at the time, he was hoping to become a past zoo foundation board president mike yanney reptile curator, and even carried a snake hook in the said. “his ability to work with the private sector as trunk of his car. “i think that might have surprised her a little bit.” well as the public sector is outstanding.”
“i should have had some indication then that it was going to be a very interesting life,” marie Simmons agreed, laughing at the memory. “and the first time i went to visit his home – his mother was a very tolerant lady – as i opened the door, there was this pet skunk.” “we had pomeranians and fragrance, who lived in the house and thought she was a pomeranian,” Simmons explained. “i actually paid one whole year of pre-vet by selling baby deodorized skunks.” Self-described “farm girl” marie wasn’t put off by her suitor’s love of all kinds of animals or his indoor/outdoor menagerie, and the couple married in 1959, less than a week before Simmons began veterinary school. “when we first got married we had this little 22-foot trailer house, which today would be a travel trailer,” Simmons said. which made it particularly hard to turn down a veterinary clinic position in altus, oklahoma, upon graduation, marie Simmons added. “it was like heaven. they were going to offer us a house and a car and a partnership eventually. and Lee said, ‘well, there’s this zoo in ohio…’” she explained. the columbus zoo position offered only a third of the salary of the veterinarian practice, less than marie was making as a junior-high and high-school home economics teacher at the time. but Simmons knew by then that he wanted a future in the zoo world. “when they asked me to take the position, marie kind of looked at me and said, ‘you’re the one who has to be happy about this,’” Simmons said. “it was kind of a long, silent ride home.” “but it worked out pretty well in the long run,” his wife said.
50 years of “Doc” 22
mQUARTERLY • NOV/DEC/JAN 2016/17
Published on Nov 15, 2016
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