Wildlife Depart­ment was like fam­ily to for­mer em­ploy­ees

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - ED GODFREY’S OUTDOORS -

Who, when they die, would leave more than $500,000 to a for­mer em­ployer?

On Mon­day, the Ok­la­homa Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion is hold­ing an open house for its ren­o­vated head­quar­ters on 1801 N Lin­coln Blvd., com­plete with a new lobby that re­sem­bles a Bass Pro Shops or Ca­bela’s with its wildlife dio­ra­mas.

The lobby show­cas­ing Ok­la­homa wildlife and in­tended as an ed­u­ca­tional dis­play was pri­mar­ily built with a gen­er­ous fi­nan­cial gift from the es­tate of two sis­ters and for­mer Wildlife Depart­ment em­ploy­ees Mary K. and Eva Ste­wart.

The Ste­wart sis­ters each worked for the Wildlife Depart­ment in Ok­la­homa City head­quar­ters for more than 30 years.

The Ste­wart sis­ters never mar­ried or had chil­dren. When they died, they had no im­me­di­ate fam­ily. The Wildlife Depart­ment was their fam­ily, so they left $512,000 to the agency, said Dick Hoar, ex­ecu­tor of their es­tate.

To un­der­stand their gift, you must un­der­stand the fru­gal cir­cum­stances of their child­hood. Ac­cord­ing to Hoar, the Ste­wart sis­ters grew up in poverty dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion in a tiny com­mu­nity called Ya­hola near Musko­gee on the Arkansas River.

Eva was the older sis­ter, born May 16, 1913. Mary Kathryn was born on Dec. 27, 1915. Their fa­ther was a share­crop­per and op­er­ated a small, gen­eral store but didn’t own it.

Their fa­ther was shot and killed when the Ste­wart sis­ters were young chil­dren. It fell upon their mother to run the store, Hoar said.

Times were hard. The Ste­wart sis­ters would tell sto­ries of hav­ing potato soup for sup­per ev­ery night. Hav­ing meat was rare and only served at the din­ner ta­ble when it was pro­vided by a gen­er­ous hunter. Get­ting an or­ange from the store was a treat.

Still, the Ste­wart sis­ters found a way to at­tend col­lege at North­east­ern Ok­la­homa State Univer­sity in Tahle­quah. Both earned de­grees and got teach­ing cer­tifi­cates.

Eva was teach­ing in

Jay when she learned of a Wildlife Depart­ment open­ing in Ok­la­homa City. She was hired in 1944 in the Wildlife Divi­sion as a sec­re­tary and even­tu­ally be­came the fed­eral aid co­or­di­na­tor, a job she held un­til re­tir­ing in 1985, Hoar said.

Upon be­ing hired, Eva en­cour­aged her sis­ter to ap­ply at the agency. Mary K. was hired in 1951 as a li­cense clerk and was pro­moted to li­cense su­per­vi­sor in 1975, a po­si­tion she held un­til her re­tire­ment a decade later.

After both ob­tained jobs with the Wildlife Depart­ment, they bought a mod­est house in Ok­la­homa City and their mother moved in with them, Hoar said.

“They never went on va­ca­tion,” he said. “They al­ways lived ex­tremely fru­gally. They sup­ported their church and took care of their mother and just squir­reled money away.”

Be­cause of their up­bring­ing, they knew the dif­fer­ence be­tween a want and a need, Hoar said.

“If the chair they had been sit­ting in for 30 years wasn’t worn out, they weren’t go­ing to get a new one,” he said.

Be­cause of their po­si­tions in the Wildlife Depart­ment, they knew ev­ery em­ployee in the agency, Hoar said.

“They were both ex­traor­di­nar­ily hon­est peo­ple and had jobs that re­quired that char­ac­ter­is­tic first and fore­most,” he said.

Hoar was their life­long friend and col­league at the Wildlife Depart­ment. When the Ste­warts re­tired and moved to Clare­more to be near a brother, Hoar of­ten would drop by and check on them.

Hoar, who worked as a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist un­til re­tir­ing in 2009, acted as their “semi-care­taker” be­fore be­com­ing ex­ecu­tor of their es­tate. Eva died in 2009 at age 96, and Mary K. fol­lowed four years later at age 97.

In ad­di­tion to the Wildlife Depart­ment, the Ste­wart sis­ters gifted large fi­nan­cial do­na­tions to the Bap­tist Chil­dren’s Home and the Ron­ald McDon­ald House in Tulsa, Hoar said. They left some money to a cousin who they didn’t par­tic­u­larly like but felt ob­li­gated to leave money to, he said.

The Ste­wart sis­ters both liked to fish but they do­nated money to the agency not be­cause they loved wildlife, but be­cause they loved the Wildlife Depart­ment, Hoar said.

They gave $512,000 to the Wildlife Depart­ment with no in­struc­tion on how the money was to be used, trust­ing it would be put to good use.

When the Wildlife Depart­ment’s build­ing flooded in 2013, the agency was forced to ren­o­vate its head­quar­ters, where it had been since 1966.

As­bestos were re­moved, the build­ing was made com­pli­ant with the Amer­i­can Dis­abil­i­ties Act, and a fire alarm and sprin­kler sys­tem was in­stalled.

The Wildlife Depart­ment moved to a tem­po­rary head­quar­ters in Au­gust 2015 un­til the $16 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion was com­pleted.

Hoar thinks the Ste­wart sis­ters would be sat­is­fied with the way their money was spent.

“They ap­pre­ci­ated a good, stable job be­cause of their his­tory,” he said. “And they also thought the job was worth do­ing and they did it as well as they pos­si­bly could, and they took great pride in that.”

A wildlife dio­rama is now show­cased at the Ok­la­homa Depart­ment of Wildlife Con­ser­va­tion’s ren­o­vated head-

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