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Northwest Trek co-founder Connie Hellyer dies at age 97

August 30, 2012

She and husband David “Doc” Hellyer donated the land for the popular wildlife park in 1971, and she remained one of the facility’s biggest supporters and cheerleaders for four decades

A bronze tribute to Connie Hellyer will soon sit at the entrance to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, celebrating her extraordinary donations of land and time to the facility she loved.

The bas relief plaque bearing her likeness will be a twin to one honoring her late husband, Dr. David T. “Doc” Hellyer. It should be ready for installation within a few months.

Together, the Hellyers donated the land and provided the inspiration for the zoological park that instilled a love of nature and Northwest animals in generations of visitors.

Connie Hellyer died Friday in Tacoma. She was 97. Her generosity of spirit and passion for the land and the creatures that inhabit it were legendary.

“She always sort of humbly considered herself as primarily a volunteer,” said Gary Geddes, director of the Zoological and Environmental Education Division of Metro Parks Tacoma. “She continually inspired the group of volunteers” who regularly work at the wildlife park, he added.

A year ago, during ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of the Hellyers’ gift, Connie Hellyer told a gathering: “I can’t explain what a wonderful feeling it is to know people are enjoying this land as much as we have.

“When we began the park, we had no idea how it would develop because no one had done anything like this before,” she continued. “We’re grateful it turned out so well and it has brought great satisfaction to us.”

The couple bought Horseshoe Lake and the land around it in 1937. The acreage was in ruin, having been both logged and swept by fire. The Hellyers were patient. They built a cabin, raised three children and helped nature along, where they could, with the restoration of the land they loved.

In 1971, the Hellyers ensured others could celebrate nature and learn from the woods and the water and the trees and the creatures that live there as they had. They donated the property to Metro Parks Tacoma. Four years later, on July 17, 1975, Northwest Trek opened its gates.

The zoological park gained support from voters over the years, ultimately expanding to 725 acres. It’s now home to more than 200 animals, miles of wooded trails and an animal free-roaming area unlike any other in the United States.

The wildlife park welcomed its 6 millionth visitor in April.

The success of Northwest Trek is testament to the careful planning of the Hellyers, who discussed their ultimate gift with friends and longtime associates in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Geddes said.

“They both enjoyed the social aspect as well as the planning and Connie, in particular, excelled in her hostess role,” he added. Her snickerdoodle cookies were legendary.

It was simply natural for Connie Hellyer to be the lead volunteer and role model in formation of a docent group, Geddes said.

“Connie always felt especially close to the volunteer corps and she continued to be an active member for many years, greeting groups and delivering trailside interpretive programs,” he added. “Her gracious style and genuine interest in people, especially children, was the same as when she and Doc hosted groups of friends and relatives into their home in the early days.”

The smiles with which visitors are greeted and the care taken to ensure they have a wonderful experience all stem from Connie Hellyer, said Chip Heinz, operations and special projects manager.

“Connie has been the inspiration for Northwest Trek’s remarkably high level of customer service,” he added.

In addition to her work at the wildlife park, Connie Hellyer was an avid supporter of music and arts, serving on the first board for the Tacoma Philharmonic and volunteering with other groups through the years, her family said.

But it was her work at Northwest Trek that filled the heart of Connie Hellyer most, said Dorothy Hellyer Oliver, one of the Hellyers’ three daughters. Oliver volunteered alongside her mother for years. Connie Hellyer was known as the “Snake Lady” for the care with which she showed and talked about garter snakes, Oliver said. Oliver herself was the “Bee Lady.”

“My mother loved being around and teaching children,” often reading to them, Oliver said.

She and Daddy would walk around Northwest Trek together, and they would be delighted when they saw children smiling and having fun and enjoying the park,” Oliver said.

“Doc” Hellyer died in 2006.

“They had a dream and that dream was Northwest Trek,” Oliver said. “They loved Northwest Trek. And they wanted others to love it, too.”

The family asks that donations in memory of Connie Hellyer go to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.

“That’s what she would have wanted,” Oliver said.

Donations may be sent to the Northwest Trek Foundation, 11610 Trek Drive E., Eatonville, WA, 98328, with a notation they’re being made in honor of Connie Hellyer.