Remembering Some Of Fossil Rim’s Finest
On this Memorial Day, we wanted to take the opportunity to tell you about some outstanding people in Fossil Rim history who have passed away, but will never be forgotten at the wildlife center.
Not that it was a prerequisite for inclusion in this article, yet all but one of these people did indeed serve in the military. Now, let’s take a trip down memory lane for a history lesson.
Jim Jackson was a Fossil Rim co-owner and avid supporter. He was involved in some degree with the wildlife center from 1987 until his death in 2010. He purchased Fossil Rim with partner Krystyna Jurzykowski in 1987, and she said Jim’s prime period of involvement was 1987-95.
“Jim served three tours in Vietnam and was a reconnaissance and rescue mission pilot in the Army Air Cavalry,” Jurzykowski said. “His plane was shot down three times, he was shot by a bullet on two occasions, and he received multiple Purple Heart Medals.”
Krystyna said that in the 1980s, even though they were untrained in regard to animals and nature, the couple was compelled to find out what they could do to make a difference in that regard.
“Jim knew he wanted to devote his life to that, and what he lacked in animal experience, he made up for with an incredibly innovative mind,” she said. “He was a phenomenal researcher when he was interested in something, and in the days before Google, he never wanted to rely on what someone else told him without verifying it.”
After the Vietnam War, Jackson began to study biochemical engineering, but one of his professors actually took Jim – the professor’s protégé – with him to UAB Spain Rehabilitation Center in Alabama, which was a federally funded spinal cord injury center.
“When Jim was sleeping one day during the war, he was shot, and the bullet went right next to his spine; it was only diverted from a direct hit by his woolen Army blanket,” Jurzykowski said. “Jim started developing gizmos for the rehab center while working with NASA. He developed a breath-controlled book page turner; he developed pressure alarms for the rehab center to use so nurses would know when a patient had laid too long in one place to avoid bedsores. Jim didn’t even have a college degree, but he had an amazing technical mind that enabled him to acquire knowledge and immediately apply it.”
Flash forward to Jackson’s time at Fossil Rim, and he joined Bruce Williams – former Fossil Rim executive director – and Kelley Snodgrass – current Fossil Rim executive director – in the design and construction of many of the early facilities at the wildlife center in 1990-94, such as structures for cheetahs, white rhinos, Grevy’s zebras, and the original gift shop, to name a few.
“Jim was the first president of the International Rhino Foundation and also served on the board,” Jurzykowski said. “He participated actively in AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) meetings. He spurred the fundraising that helped Ulysses Seal start the Conservation Planning Specialist Group and Jim later served on the advisory board.”
Jackson helped design the entire Intensive Management Area (IMA). Since his passing, that part of Fossil Rim was renamed the Jim Jackson Intensive Management Area.
“Dedicating the Intensive Management Area to him and the words inscribed on the rock sign as you enter are an indication that Jim was instrumental in leading Fossil Rim into a new era of conservation,” said Snodgrass, who was on hand to witness all of Jackson’s efforts at the wildlife center. “He was, and still very much is, a part of the fabric that is Fossil Rim. It is important for supporters of Fossil Rim to know who he was. He was a great innovator and forecaster of things we could do to help threatened and endangered species.
“Jim was a remarkable human being whose influence over Fossil Rim will continue long into the future. His contributions made it possible for us to reach the breadth of conservation we’re at now; it’s up to us to uphold his legacy and continue to build on it, because we are a mission-driven organization.”
David Thompson was a board member at Fossil Rim from 2002-2006. The cheetah portion of the IMA was renamed the David P. Thompson Cheetah Conservation Center after his death.
“John Lucas of White Oak Conservation (Florida) was the mentor for Jim and me as we began at Fossil Rim,” Jurzykowski said. “He visited 2-3 times per year and provided guidance. I later asked John to be on our board of directors, and he did, but when he had to turn all of his attention back to White Oak, he sent us his right-hand man, David Thompson.
“We’d gotten to know David at White Oak over the years. David and his wife bought land in the Fossil Rim area, and he was close to retirement when he passed away.”
Snodgrass enjoyed the years with Thompson in the fold.
“We were so appreciative of David’s influence and his time spent helping Fossil Rim that we named the IMA cheetah facility after him,” Snodgrass said. “Having David on our board, even as he continued to work at White Oak, strengthened the relationship with White Oak that remains very important to us today. David knew a lot about exotic animals and the conservation business, plus he was really liked around here. He was so down to earth with a common-sense approach to provide a steadying influence in the governance of this organization.”
Sandra Skrei, former education director of Fossil Rim, knew Thompson well. She touched on his time in the Army.
“Dave was working at the St. Louis Zoo and he’d heard a lecture by Pat Burchfield on the work at the anti-venom lab at Fort Knox,” she said. “When he got his draft notice, Dave contacted Pat to see if he could serve his time there. He didn’t hear back from Pat and was standing in line to board a plane to Vietnam when he was called out of the line and told he’d been reassigned to Fort Knox. They worked with venomous snakes from Vietnam and Laos to develop the anti-venom used when soldiers were bitten.”
Thompson returned to the St. Louis Zoo, but he would also later work alongside Burchfield at the Gladys Porter Zoo, where Burchfield is still the zoo’s director.
“David was quite the entertainer and educator,” Skrei said. “He loved to teach and share stories about deeds and misdeeds. He didn’t have much patience for some of the things zoo visitors did, so he was thrilled when he got to work at White Oak.
“Dave worked for (American zoologist) Marlin Perkins and revered him, and Dave was very involved in ‘professionalizing’ the zoo community. He loved the Species Survival Plans (SSP), and helped get several of them started.”
Eidson was a volunteer at Fossil Rim from 1990 to 2007 when he passed away. In 2009, the Ted & Mary Eidson Prairie Grouse Incubation Center opened in the Attwater’s prairie chicken (APC) section of the IMA. It is considered to be the most important building for the prairie chickens produced at Fossil Rim.
Eidson actually left Fossil Rim a substantial monetary sum in his will, which was used to fund construction of the incubation center. With the money left over, Fossil Rim was able to purchase a new tractor, hay cutter, and hay baler. The tractor, which is still in use today, has the first name of Eidson’s niece (Janie Bare) painted on it.
“Ted was a fantastic guy,” Snodgrass said. “I’ll use the Attwater’s prairie chicken program as an example. He was a volunteer who invested so much of his time, especially at the beginning of the APC program, because nobody was raising them back then. Moving sand, digging up grass, planting grass – helping us build the APC facility.
“Ted stayed attached to Fossil Rim as a fantastic donor and contributor. There is still a pickup in our fleet – number 18 – that he donated to Fossil Rim; it’s one of our APC trucks. We have a wonderful relationship with Janie and her husband, John, because of Ted.”
Fossil Rim Director of Animal Care Adam Eyres said he really liked Eidson and complimented how hard he worked.
“Most important, I believe, was the spirit Ted brought to this place,” Snodgrass said. “His passion and his belief in the mission and the programs, like the one for the APCs, was second to none. Ted absolutely has a legacy at Fossil Rim.”
Bare said Eidson served in the Army and was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries suffered during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.
“In the middle of the chaos of that battle, Ted somehow arranged for a Jeep and a driver, and by some stroke of luck, found my dad – Ted’s little brother – which surely saved dad’s life,” Bare said.
As it relates to the three people recognized thus far, Snodgrass addressed the decision to rename facilities in honor of Fossil Rim contributors who have passed away.
“As an organization, we make those decisions,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to recognize some of those special people. There are a lot of incredibly important people to this organization, but sometimes you get the opportunity to boost a legacy after someone has passed away.
“We need to remember all of the relationships these people have brought to Fossil Rim, many of which we still benefit from today. All of these people believed in our mission, and it’s led to so many wonderful things.”
Fairbrother was a volunteer at Fossil Rim from 2009 until his death in 2019. He funded the creation of a barn for the tour vehicles at the Overlook.
“He was passionate about our facility and the work that we do,” said Tours Manager David Whiting. “He would come out and drive for our tours and school programs, plus help with other projects from our volunteer group. I had the pleasure of knowing him for only a few years of his decade of volunteering with us. He was quiet, soft-spoken, and loved coming out to drive for the school groups; his smile and demeanor would easily calm a frustrated guide.”
Whiting, who pointed out that Fairbrother was an Air Force pilot in Vietnam, talked about the vehicle barn donation.
“Several years ago, he noted that our vehicles were constantly being exposed to the harsh weather of the summer sun, the rains of spring, and the freezes of winter,” Whiting said. “The extremes of the weather were impacting our tour operations, and he wanted to remedy the situation. Last year, he donated the funds to help construct our vehicle barn for our vans here at the Overlook. This structure protects our vehicles from the elements, making it easier to keep them clean and in working order.”
Jan Bussey became a volunteer at Fossil Rim in 1986. After 10 years of service, she joined the staff in various roles for 18 years. In 2014, she returned to a volunteer role until her death in 2017. One of Fossil Rim’s giraffes was renamed “Jan Bussey” in her honor.
While Bussey did not serve in the military, she needs to be included in any article discussing significant Fossil Rim contributors who have passed away. Comments from Tom Mantzel, original Fossil Rim owner, and Mary Jo Stearns, former carnivore curator, are presented below. However, to read discussion of Bussey from many more Fossil Rim figures, check out this 2017 blog: https://tinyurl.com/y5kqgcm4.
Tom Mantzel: “As the founder of Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, I observed a number of different ‘kaleidoscopic’ aspects in the early formative years up to the time that Jim and Krystyna took over. The gamut of feelings ranges from the euphoric to the absolute bottomless abyss. One of the high points was the involvement early on with the docents and, as I worked with them, I came to appreciate the invaluable elements these individuals brought to the party.
Their love, their selfless devotion, their thirst for knowledge, their desire to make the Fossil Rim ‘experience’ for the visitor one that they would not forget. Those fortunate to have crossed paths with Jan Bussey would also say she is one we will not forget. Jan occupied a special niche in my heart.
Always smiling, always bubbly, Jan threw herself into the docent’s role. Whenever we crossed paths, either in the early years or later on in my periodic visits, she was always quick to throw her arms around me and let me know what Fossil Rim meant to her. What she meant to Fossil Rim, to me, and thousands of visitors, was a composite individual with various facets that made Jan ‘Jan’.
Those of us fortunate enough to have crossed paths with her know what I mean. Week after week, month after month, year after year, decade after decade, Jan was always available and always quick to offer her services. She was a unique person – one who will be missed, and when one thinks about the so-called ‘spirit of Fossil Rim’, Jan is precisely the individual who embodies that.”
Mary Jo Stearns: “Jan was a whirlwind of energy fueled by her love of animals. There are two specific things that will remain with me about Jan. The first being her love for one of our maned wolves, Katie.
Jan was devoted to Katie and insisted that Fossil Rim name the little guest house on admin road ‘Katie’s Cottage’ after Katie’s death. Secondly, every Christmas, Jan never failed to have a small, personal gift for each animal care person, year after year. Jan was a true educator to guests because of her enthusiasm for Fossil Rim and for its animals.
It was contagious and guests felt it, appreciated it, and learned from it. Jan will be missed by employees, animals, and scores of people who may not have known her name, but took away a new insight into wildlife after being on a tour led by Jan Bussey.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate