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ZooZeum Added to the National Registry of Historic Places

by Amy Dee Stephens

zoozeum dedication“You’re glowing today.”

That’s what my co-worker said when I arrived at work on Sat, Feb 18th, 2017. I didn’t know it showed, but it was a proud day for me. The day represented the culmination of twelve years of hard work: rescuing lost zoo history, saving an important building from destruction, reminding folks that the zoo is in the entertainment memory-bank of nearly everyone in this state for 115 years!

Landing the zoo’s bathhouse on the U.S. Department of Interior’s Register of National Historic Places was a triumph—but not just for me. This stone structure, currently named the Patricia and Byron J. Gambulos ZooZeum, has a place in history this is a result of many people over many years.

It came into existence during a dramatic time in America’s history—the Great Depression. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Civilian Conservation Corp, and a unit of young men arrived at the Zoo in Oct 1933. The men lived in tents on zoo property, rose to a bugle call each morning and reported to the flagpole to receive their daily work orders. Over several years, they built some amazing structures that have stood the test of time. Many are still in evidence in the Zoo today: roads, picnic benches, the amphitheater and the bathhouse.

The bathhouse’s original purpose was for swimmers to the lake, but over time, the bathhouse also housed the train and stored Halloween props. In the mid-2000s, the idea for restoring the building and turning it into a zoo history museum started coming to fruition. Zoo director, Bert Castro, saw the value of preserving the culture and memories of the Zoo—in the building that had stood watch from the corner of the zoo since 1935.

In 2011, the ZooZeum opened with the purpose of helping guests discover the zoo’s history and reconnect with their own zoo memories. Landing on the National Registry came with the blessing of zoo director, Dwight Lawson, and the assistance of the Oklahoma State Historic Preservation office, who navigated the complicated paperwork with the U.S. Department of the Interior.

The weather was beautiful on Feb 18th. The ceremony was simple. A small stage, podium and flag sat in front of the bathhouse. The guests were people who cared about the building’s architectural legacy. After a few short speeches, Dwight Lawso

zoozeum boys

n and Blake Cody, representing the Byron Gambulos Family, unveiled the bronze plaque placed on the bathhouse door.

For me, the next two activities were most symbolic, although most people

probably missed their significance. First, the public was invited to walk up the twisted staircase into the ZooZeum tower for the first time ever.  Second, an oak sapling was planted: in honor of the day, in honor of the CCC “tree Army” boys who built the bathhouse, and in honor of the zoo’s location in a historic oak landscape.

I had gone to the source of an underwater spring on the other side of the lake to collect the bucket of water for guests to ladle onto the sapling. The spring originally fed zoo lake—and was the reason why the bathhouse was built in the first place. The child attendees really seemed to enjoy putting their dippers into the bucket and giving the tree little drinks of water. It made me happy.

After the dedication, I returned to my office, changed back into work uniform, and got back to my Saturday-as-usual routine. I walked among many zoo visitors who didn’t know about the history-making ceremony that had just taken place. But I knew that something important had happened that day. After a decade of work, I’d helped save the bathhouse for all those people. For future generations.

That’s why I was glowing.


Special thanks to:

The CCC boys who built the bathhouse and all the Zoo directors who came afterward and kept the building intact. The Zoo caretakers, such as Ernie Wilson and Tommy Bryant, who provided maintenance to protect the building from deterioration over many years. The Gambulos family, who funded the conversion and are honored with their name on the building. Sherri Vance, Yvonne Lever and Karen Jones who helped guide the formation of the archive and galleries housed within the bathhouse walls.

This article was published on the Oklahoma City Zoo website blog:

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The Big Story About Saving Tiny Lives

I was so proud to interview these dear friends and share the story of how this important juvenile non-fiction book about “the man who saved blue babies” came to life.

Written by Amy Dee Stephens in the June 2016 Issue

If you haven’t heard the name Vivien Thomas yet—you will soon. Oklahoma City author, Gwendolyn Hooks, is celebrating the release of her 20th children’s book, Tiny Stitches: The Life of Medical Pioneer Vivien Thomas. It’s already earning rave reviews.

Gwendolyn Hooks with Anna MyersBack in the 1940s, Vivien developed a technique that is still saving thousands of babies born with low oxygen, sometimes called “blue baby syndrome.” But decades passed before he received any credit for his discovery. After all, he was only a research assistant.

Fast forward to 2010. Gwendolyn Hooks was up late A text came through. “Are you awake? Call me.” It was from Gwendolyn’s friend and fellow author, Anna Myers. It was after 11 o’clock, it must be trouble. “Gwen, Gwen,” Anna shouted into the phone. “I just saw a movie about the man who saved my little Will’s life. His name is Vivien Thomas. You have to write his story.”

Little Will, Anna’s grandson, was born a perfect angel—but a few hours later, he developed signs of serious heart defects. Will’s tiny lips and fingers started to turn blue. His oxygen levels were too low. Will needed a delicate surgery to open valves in his heart and increase blood flow. He required the surgery developed by Vivien Thomas.

Now, Will is ten years old and doing fine, but the fear Anna’s family experienced can never be forgotten. So when Anna’s brother saw a movie about the little-known Vivien Thomas, he called Anna in tears, insisting she watch the movie. Anna was equally moved. She could now put a name to the man who saved her grandson’s life.

“Anna, I’ve never heard of Vivien Thomas.” Gwendolyn said. “He means something to you, you should write it,” Gwendolyn said.

“Gwen,” Anna said, “this story has to be told, and the author has to be African American. God told me you’re the one to write this.”

When Anna speaks emphatically to her author friends, they pay attention. After all, Anna is in the Oklahoma Writer’s Hall of Fame. So, Gwendolyn watched the movie and started to research Vivien Thomas. What she discovered was the remarkable fortitude of a man who cared more about saving lives than taking credit. Vivien was unable to afford medical school, so he took a job as a research assistant.

It took Vivien a while to realize that because he was a black man working in an all-white university, he was treated differently. Vivien wasn’t paid as a lab technician, his official job title was janitor. He couldn’t walk in the front door. He wasn’t allowed to wear a lab coat, which indicated doctor status.

In 1943, Dr. Alfred Blalock was asked to develop a surgery to save blue babies, but since he was busy with other projects, he asked Vivien to do the research. Working with Dr. Blalock, Vivien’s natural aptitude led to the creation of a procedure for shunting arteries and sewing the vessels together. Vivien developed miniature tools and experimented on animal hearts, sewing arteries together with tiny stitches. It worked, and it was ground breaking!

When Dr. Blalock was asked to try the technique on a dying baby, Vivien stood behind him on a stool and coached Dr. Blalock through the surgery he’d developed. The baby survived.

Anna Myers with Gwendolyn Hooks

Vivien then stood over Dr. Blalock’s shoulder and talked him through 150 additional surgeries. However, the procedure was named after Dr. Blalock and another colleague, who wrote a scientific paper about the procedure. Vivien was never mentioned. Nor was he invited to the celebration in which Dr. Blalock was nominated for a Nobel Prize for the surgical technique.

As Gwendolyn dug further into Vivien Thomas’ life, she was amazed by his humbleness. Despite being ignored professionally, he and Dr. Blalock maintained a congenial working relationship. Vivien continued his work and generously trained hundreds of doctors on his technique. It wasn’t until 26 years later when Vivien was acknowledged by students for his medical contributions, and his portrait was placed at Johns Hopkins University.

With Anna’s encouragement, Gwendolyn spent three years writing and rewriting Vivien’s story. She contacted Oklahoma doctors who had trained under Vivien or who perform the blue baby surgery, such as Dr. Harold Burkhart.

Since Gwendolyn was writing a children’s book, she didn’t want the emphasis to be the racism issue. Vivien’s treatment might have been “the norm” in the 1940s, but his ability to see past himself was not. Gwendolyn wanted readers to know that Vivien could have been bitter and walked away, but he focused on his goals instead of his feelings.

Gwendolyn also pushed aside her own doubts that her book would ever be good enough. Her husband kept saying, “You can do this! But maybe you should come to bed now—it’s 2 o’clock in the morning.” Despite having already published 20 books herself, writing about such an important topic didn’t come quickly or easily—but Gwendolyn forged through dozens of “clunky drafts” until she had written a story that honored Vivien. “The words didn’t come magically—but the final manuscript gave my agent chills,” Gwendolyn said.

Gwendolyn spent two more years revising the book. Another year passed while illustrator Colin Bootman finished the watercolor illustrations. Bootman is a previous winner of the Coretta Scott King Award for outstanding books by African Americans.

According to Kirkus Review, Gwendolyn’s story is told with a “gently insistent message of perseverance.” It’s exactly what she hoped would come across. “Vivien couldn’t afford medical school, so he grabbed at the detour that came his way. By focusing on his goal, his dream was fulfilled,” Gwendolyn said. And Anna stood over Gwendolyn’s shoulder and encouraged her to trust in her talent.

“Gwen worried that she couldn’t do this story justice,” Anna said. “But I knew she could—and she did it beautifully.”

To learn more, visit

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My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

Here we are fishing on the Amazon!  Photo by Val.

Here we are fishing on the Amazon! Photo by Val.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

Too close to caiman!Photo by Amy Stephens.

My “Wild” Amazon River Adventure

I was fortunate to join my husband, Mike on his 10-day peacock bass fishing trip in Brazil—and it was a wild adventure! Mike hosted a group of 15 friends and clients, and I tacked on at the last minute as photographer/historian for the trip.

Going to the Amazonian rainforest is not for the faint of heart. You will see from the pictures that we had to wear very fashionable, full-cover gear to protect us from the bugs, hot UV rays, and occasional deluges of rain. We rose at 5:00am and fished until 5:00pm. We headquartered out of a main boat, but spent daylight in smaller 2-person fishing boats. Our Portuguese guides sat in the back to drive the boat and offer fishing advice (mostly in sign-language or broken English).

Mike caught many fish, including a 16-pound paca bass, and some of the people on the trip caught up to 23-pound fish! We saw caiman (alligators) swim past us and pink dolphins occasionally rose to the surface to try and snatch our fish from the line.

Mike's big fish!  A 16 pound paca.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

Mike’s big fish! A 16 pound paca. Photo by Amy Stephens.

We were surrounded by jungle wildlife and I saw many birds fly by, including parrots and macaws, as well as the large blue morpho butterfly. Oddly, all sounds ceased during the day. From 9:30am to 3:30pm, we saw little wildlife and heard none. Then, as if an alarm clock went off, the birds would start squawking at 3:30. We even heard howler monkeys in the distance, although I never saw one.

Along the Rio Negro are unexpected islands of solid white sand. One night, our boat moored up to one of these large sand banks and the staff set up tables and chairs so that we could enjoy a dinner party. It was the only time during the week we were on land. The staff dug a deep pit in the sand and smoked all kinds of meats. They chopped down four palm trees from the jungle and dug deep holes in the sand to drop them into so that party lights could be strung around the area. As the evening ended, Mike walked down to the water and made a cast. A staff person started yelling, “No, no!” He shone his flashlight down the bank where Mike stood to reveal huge glowing eyes, a 10-foot caiman alligator lay less than 10 feet away. We suspect the staff knew he was there all along—and that’s the reason for the boundary of lit palm trees.

My favorite part of the trip was when our boats left the main lake and struck off down a narrow trail hidden in the trees. We had to move vines out of the way and duck branches—but once the boat made it down these “secret” trails, the trees would open back up again to reveal another lagoon full of fish. As we disturbed birds and bats along the way, they would swoop across our path.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank.  Photo by Mike Stephens.

Our boat, docked at the white sand bank. Photo by Mike Stephens.

My least favorite part of the trip was the rain. Yes, it is the rainforest, so water was expected—but we experienced more rain than typical for the November “dry season.” My rain gear was quickly saturated, making for a long, cold trip back to the main boat. We didn’t have hot showers or clothes dryers, either.

Every time I’ve traveled outside the United States, I’m reminded that I’m both blessed and spoiled. Although this was a luxury trip, we lived in a room/bathroom that was 5x10ft, with river water for the toilet, sink and bath (we used bottled water to brush our teeth!). We carried more in our suitcases than most of the boat staff owned. But the hospitality was wonderful and I loved our daily fish entrées, from fresh piranha soup to smoked bass–and I don’t usually like fish.

One amazing event occurred that still seems impossible. I was fishing with a gentleman in our group named Chip one day. About 3:30pm, a large fish broke off his line, taking the lure with him. Being such an expensive lure, we waited awhile to see if the fish would spit it up. He didn’t. We motored a half-mile up the river to a new location. A rainstorm struck and Chip was catching fish left and right for almost an hour. As we packed up to leave, that same fish exploded out of the water and spit Chip’s lure out right in front of us!

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

Beach party on the white sand bank. Photo by Amy Stephens

I’m thankful to have experienced the Amazon. As Theodore Roosevelt described when he traveled the Amazon—an invisible world surrounds you in the jungle. Invisibility renders the animals more able to survive its harsh conditions–which explains why hours sometimes went by without an animal sighting or sound. It also gives me greater respect for the people survive life on the Amazon.

After one large rainstorm, an amazing rainbow appeared above the river. Unlike those we see in the city, it was extremely bright, we could see the entire rainbow, and it lasted for a half hour. Sitting on the 2nd largest river in the world, surrounded by water that will raise 12 feet higher in the rainy season, I was reminded of God’s promise to never flood the earth with rain again. I was also reminded that God governs the whole earth and its many intricacies, habitats, and people. It’s an amazing world, and I’m glad to have seen a different part of it!

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise.  Photo by Amy Stephens.

The Amazon Rainbow. The Promise. Photo by Amy Stephens.


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Who Am I? by Dr. Lonnie Melvin

My dear friend, Dr. Lonnie Melvin, just had her second book released.  Who Am I? is a guidebook of discovery for anyone who is seeking to understand their role and reactions in life.

New book written by my dear friend, Dr. Lonnie Melvin ~Amy

New book written by my dear friend, Dr. Lonnie Melvin ~Amy

Based on the premise that 50% of what we know is learned and 50% is inborn, Lonnie suggest that by arming ourselves with knowledge about what we can and can’t change—we have more power to choose our path.  Lonnie uses credible research and examples from her own life to help readers understand topics such as birth order, dysfunctional families, gender differences and embracing change. To quote Lonnie, “we can use those great gifts God has given us and use our brains to do the rest.”

I became friends with Lonnie over fifteen years ago when she was still a school principal.  We attended a conference at the Bronx Zoo that promoted the partnership between zoos and middle schools to improve student’s interest in science and inquiry learning.  During our two weeks together, we bonded while experiencing life in a dorm room at the “The Y,” a subway gang fight, different cultural food each night, a haunted restaurant, and many animal encounters at the zoo.

Amy, LuAnn and Lonnie in New York.

Amy, LuAnn and Lonnie in New York.

Lonnie now has multiple degrees in education, leadership and counseling. Her previous book, How to Keep Good Teachers and Principals, is a guidebook for keeping educators motivated, despite difficulties in school policies and changes in student learning. Who Am I? is now available from Dorrance Publishing.

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Undersea Sleepover at the Zoo (Click here to view video segment)

Lucas and Amy talk about the upcoming Zoo Undersea Sleepover

Lucas and Amy talk about the upcoming Zoo Undersea Sleepover

That Lucas Ross–what a creative guy! No wonder he’s in television. He came up with this silly crazy skit to promote the zoo’s Undersea Sleepover. He wore pajamas and pretended to sleep walk through the zoo. I was the “straight guy” giving the viewers basic information. We talked through the outline and pulled it off in one take.

I must also give his brother a shout-out. He’s the camera man, quietly filming our antics and cutting scenes to boil the whole thing down into the finished product. Like any good writing team, Lucas and his brother came up with a theme, plot and surprising conclusion, all in a segment that lasted about 3 minutes.

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Jane Austen Revelation

In which I reveal my new Jane Austen fixation and spread the word about the Jane Austen Festival in Oklahoma City. 

 I’m a late-comer to the Jane Austen fan club, but at least I timed it right.  The market is reveling in the success of reproductions and spin-offs based on her 200-year-old books.  Until yesterday, I failed to realize that I’d come under Jane’s spell.  It took a children’s book to wake my sensibilities (pun intended).   

 Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef is a new biography I picked up at a Scholastic Book Fair.  Although it is geared toward junior high and up, I found it interesting and thorough.  The family tree printed on the first pages was helpful on occasion when the many family names became confusing.  Complete with photos and illustrations, its style reminds me of the 1934 Newbery Award book Invincible Louisa; The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Lynde Meigs. 

 Now that I “know” Jane better, I think I would have enjoyed her company.  She loved learning, children, and psychology.  She enjoyed watching plays and traveling.  She had a sense of humor.  She didn’t give up when her writing became stalled in the publishing system.  

 What I admire most is that she produced memorable stories, without benefit of writing courses or critique groups.  Based on that alone, I defy those who debate and speculate as to her “worthiness.”  I proclaim, without a doubt, that Jane Austen had writing talent!

 Why did it take me so long to realize my Austen fanaticism? In the last 6 months, I’ve read four spin-off’s to Pride and Prejudice.

 My favorite was Austenland, a modern chicklit in which women in need of some role playing take a vacation at a private resort.  After donning dresses and regency accents, they are “courted” by men who resemble Darcy and Bingley.  Created by Shannon Hale (of Princess Academy fame), the story was well written and hard to put down.  The sequel, Midnight in Austenland, was also fun. 

 Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James focuses on a murder accusation against the distasteful Mr. Wickham.  Pride and Prescience by Bebris had Jane and Darcy solving a mystery during their wedding party.  Pride and Predjudice and Zombies was amusing, but less to my taste.  There are zillions more Darcy-esque titles from which to choose. 

 Oddly enough—this week I learned of a Jane Austen Festival being held in Oklahoma City at the Reduxion Theatre, June 14-16 Since I am now a professed Austenite, I plan to attend at least one night.  Featured is regency dancing, a play reading of Pride and Prejudice, and a lecture from author Linda Berdoll (author of Darcy Takes a Wife, which is next on my reading list). 

 To quote Austen, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”  I believe that my lack of understanding has more to do with the fact that Jane Austen was not on my particular high school reading list.  It has taken the barrage of spin-offs to introduce me to the joy and quirkiness of Austen lore.

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5 More Things I Learned About Nancy Drew

 (Continued from previous post “Nancy Drew is 80!)

6.   Modernizing Nancy:  All books prior to 1956 have original text.  After that, text was revised to be more modern (no more high heels while sleuthing, different type of car, etc.). 

7.  Nancy Leaves the Country…: The first time Nancy traveled out of the United States, to Canada, was in the book Message in the Hollow Oak.

8.  …and Travels the World:  Collector Lea S. Fox owns over 3,500 Nancy Drew books—all foreign editions, in 27 languages.  The covers are sometimes drastically different than what we are used to seeing.  French children grew up with green-spine books, and the Swedish had red-spine books.

9.  Don’t Be Deceived by Ebay Photos:  Ebay has become an unreliable source for the serious collector.  Many sellers are using stock photos, so the condition may be quite different, or not reflect those important interior details (like endpapers and illustrations) that collectors discriminate between.

10.  Editor Secret Revealed:  One editor of the Nancy Drew series was hired under mysterious circumstances.  Many years and one lawsuit later—she discovered why.  Her first name was Nancy and she’d attended Drew University.

 Again–it’s not too late to read join the Web Conference, which is archived at  If you are a fan of series books, it will be nice nostalgic trip.

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