By Belen Casillas
Continuing the legacy of the Caldwell Zoo with hard work, dedication and clear vision has been the drive for Hayes Caldwell, who this month celebrates 50 years of his devotion to the facility.
"I have been blessed to be on this journey for 50 years. You can't make this stuff up. I keep pinching myself because it doesn't seem like 50 years," said Caldwell.
He was only 14 in 1963 when he took on a zoo job that paid him about a quarter a day to clean cages, mow grass and stock the soda machine.
Now, he oversees zoo operations as executive director.
The zoo started in the backyard of his uncle, David King Caldwell, with the only animals on hand being ducks, chickens, parrots, monkeys and an alligator.
That was later moved to Tyler's northwest corner and opened as the Caldwell Zoo in 1953.
Hayes Caldwell remembers playing in the backyard zoo and seeing his uncle's passion for how children delighted in seeing the animals.
Today, Caldwell's wooden carved giraffes, geographic books and framed family pictures on a shelf in his office illustrate how he has carried on his uncle's passion.
"I really enjoy seeing families come to the zoo and watching them enjoy themselves, particularly small children," Caldwell said. "Seeing the wonder in their eyes for the first time to see an elephant … that's always been really special to me."
Caldwell graduated from Texas Tech University with a bachelor's degree in park administration in 1972 and soon took over the architectural plans to expand Caldwell Zoo in 1976.
"The next 15 to 20 years, a lot of my time was involved in the planning and implementing of that master plan and developing the zoo in what you see today," Caldwell said. "That is where I spent a bulk of my time."
The zoo sits on 85 acres and houses 250 different kinds of species, with a total of 3,000 animals. In the care of Caldwell and 84 employees, the animals and park have been credited since 1985 by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to be one of the country's top facilities of its kind.
"Having his experience over the last five decades of watching this zoo go basically from a couple of buildings and a parking lot to what he has built it today, it's just real impressive," said William Garvin, who's worked for the zoo 17 years.
Caldwell's vision for the zoo's future is to catch up with the tech-savvy generations, where the people can better enjoy and connect with the animals. Along as his health remains good, Caldwell, 64, said he will continue to enjoy what he's doing now.
"Staying connected with the zoo world and keeping up with trends, and how trends are changing, and how we can evolve along with the changes as we see coming up. That's where I spend a lot of my time," Caldwell said.
Caldwell also will be working this summer overseeing the remodeling of exhibits to make them better breeding grounds.
"The Tyler community owes Hayes and the entire Caldwell family a debt of gratitude because of having a world-class zoo in Texas," said Tom Woldert, of Tyler, who visited the zoo with wife and two young grandchildren on June 7.
From selling tickets, memberships to operating the gift shop and handling security, Mike Tucker director of visitor services, like many other colleagues, is a witness to Caldwell's hard work.
"He's been my direct supervisor," Tucker said. "It's always been a good experience working with Hayes. I couldn't have picked someone better to work for 30 something years. I couldn't trade it."
The celebration of 50 years of dedication to the zoo continues for Caldwell as he experiences the growth of the park to what started off in his favorite back yard to what is now an equipped facility, providing generations after generations the opportunity to enjoy nature and wild life at its best.
"The main thing that always has driven me and still drives me today is that I want to continue the legacy of D.K. and Lonny Caldwell, because their love for children is what started all of this and it's kind of kept it going," Caldwell said. "That's what drives me every day."