Saluting Sexson — Zoo has reception for retiring executive director

3/28/2014

By KELTON BROOKS

By KELTON BROOKS

kbrooks@gctelegram

Friends, co-workers and many others came to show their gratitude for Kathy Sexson Friday afternoon at an open house reception at the Finnup Center for Conservation Education for the retiring Lee Richardson Zoo director, who spent 30 years serving the zoo.

Taking one finger to dry the corner of her eye, Sexson couldn't help but feel emotional looking back on her time at the zoo and receiving hug after hug from everyone who came to the reception.

"It's pretty emotional. It's nice to see all the support from all the people I worked with," Sexson said. "Just all the support you see expressed here, has been here for the last 30 years. It really just makes things so much easier when the community feels this way."

Sexson, who started with the zoo in February 1984, said the zoo has changed tremendously during her time, from exhibits, to the animals, to education programs, and facilities such as the Finnup Center. Sexson even recalled the times when the education programs were held in a "little, tiny single room."

"We made the best of everything we had, and it grew from there," she said.

She couldn't quite put a finger on one memorable moment, but Sexson spoke of Cat Canyon and how she left her print on it.

"That was a project that I took from beginning to end, from the dream and design of the exhibit, the work from the architect and the contractors, and everything to get it done. The grand opening for the public was special, and it's just a great feeling to have a wonderful zoo exhibit for our cats," she said. "It's not one moment, but it's a project I can call my own that took a lot of help from a lot of people."

Sexson praised the staff's hard work at the zoo and said she hopes it continues to grow and progress.

Deputy Zoo Director Kristi Newland will serve as interim director until a new director is chosen.

Newland said she will miss Sexson's dedication the most.

"I can't think of a better director or partner to have had for the last eight years," Newland said. "Everything flowed well, we were on the same page, she doesn't play games and talks straight to you — that's refreshing. She put her heart and soul into the business. Not everybody is that dedicated."

Also at the reception was the former director of the Lee Richardson Zoo, Daniel Baffa, who worked with Sexson for nine years.

"She's responsible for so much growth here," Baffa said. "Cat Canyon, the tortoise exhibit, maintaining the grounds, education — the expansion of the building we're in now is because of Kathy."

During the reception, a slide show was displayed recapturing her many moments at the zoo — photos with her co-workers, posing with the animals, and groups of children who came to view the zoo.

When asked about Sexson's time at the zoo, 12-year employee Stephanie Fontenot laughed and said, "Please don't make me cry."

"She's been instrumental in achieving, in making the zoo get to a higher level," Fontenot said.

The card Fontenot gave Sexson read, "You have set the standard, and it's our job to keep it there."

"Her leadership, the way she inspires people to be better no matter what position we have at the zoo, and always giving us support and credit is something I will miss," she said.

Sexson's last day at work was Friday, but her official retirement date is Tuesday. She said she plans to spend more time with her family, spend more time traveling, and doing more things she hasn't had time to do.

"I heard when you're retired, you do more things than you do at work," Sexson said as she laughed. "I can't imagine that."

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