March 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Dr. Lee Simmons retired as director of the Henry Doorly Zoo at age 71 in 2009. But apparently he didn’t get the memo about taking it easy. Simmons—called “Doc” by those who know him—still shows up for work daily at Omaha’s zoo.

But not as director. Dennis Pate now holds that position.

After 43 years at the zoo, Simmons was named chairman of the Omaha Zoo Foundation. Instead of lions and tigers, he nurtures dollars and cents, raising funds for projects, capital investment, and the zoo’s endowment.

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Simmons—who led Henry Doorly Zoo to become one of the top zoos in the country—did back off from his 60- to 70-hour work weeks to what he calls “banker’s hours.”  The more relaxed schedule is a reluctant concession to his open-heart surgery in 2008.

Simmons, who has created and developed projects ranging from the Lied Jungle to the Desert Dome, is now wrestling with funding projects that are part of the zoo’s master plan.

Right now, he wants to buy elephants that would be part of a new African grasslands exhibit. Price tag for the exhibit: around $40 million.

Also high on the zoo’s wish list is a magnet high school. Imagine 350-400 high school students with a yen to study biology, zoology, veterinary medicine, science, and nutrition, among other disciplines, going to school every day in a new building on the zoo grounds.

The zoo has hosted a high school for 18 years. Two years ago, students began attending full time. Although carried out through the Papillion/La Vista School District, the zoo hopes to attract students from the entire metro area.

“We would like to cross the river to Council Bluffs,” Simmons says. Price tag for the school: An estimated $20 million. No tax money is involved.

He also continues conducting tours for the zoo’s “Zoofari.” Trips are auctioned at the zoo’s biannual fundraiser. In 2012, he took a group to Tanzania. In May 2014, he and his wife of 55 years, Marie, will escort a group to Botswana. Africa is a favorite destination for the adventurous Simmons.

His active involvement with five professional organizations, including as past president of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians, also keeps him on the road. Recent trips have been to Prague and Cologne, Germany. Simmons figures he has visited 49 countries plus the Antarctic during his long career.

In 2013, he was selected as the international recipient of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group’s Ulysses S. Seal Award. The honor is given to “people who exemplify innovation in applying science to conservation.” The group noted areas of invention and research where he excelled and his role in conservation projects worldwide.

His work doesn’t end when he leaves his office in Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Pavilion. He and Marie run a home-based medical equipment business, manufacturing devices for treating and immobilizing animals. They sell to zoos and wildlife biologists around the world.

His time also is spent organizing the transferral of 50,000 slides to digital files, mostly of animals, that he has taken over the years.

For those asking if Simmons is enjoying his “retirement,” the answer is “yes, he is.”

After office hours, Simmons is writing his memoirs. And he’s had a life well worth writing about. The boy who spent his early youth in Arizona catching snakes went on to pay for his first year of veterinary school by deodorizing skunks. “They make sweet pets,” claims Marie.

Most likely he’ll write about the time he got lost in Vietnam from midnight to dawn. Or working in Russia when the temperature was 28 degrees below zero. Maybe he’ll reveal how he lost the tip of one finger thanks to an orangutan named Ichabod. “Ichabod went after a new zoo keeper,” says Simmons. “I went over to help and he chewed me from the knee up.” Blood was flying, and zookeepers were yelling, but some bystanders were still less than sympathetic. “Two women complained I used profanity and wrote to the mayor demanding I be fired.”

He doesn’t remember using the profanity. He was focused on pain and his missing fingertip but admits that maybe it wasn’t exactly a G-rated moment.

Dr. Jane Potter, the University of Nebraska Medical Center chief of geriatrics and gerontology, says Simmons has made a wise choice in continuing to work. “The key to aging happily and successfully is staying engaged.”

People actively engaged are healthier, feel better, and function better, she says. They have better brain function and mental acuity, better physical function, and fewer sick days.

“We need to do this not only for zoo directors, but provide reduced work schedules for people who do enjoy their jobs and make important contributions.”

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