Gayle Lacy

2015 Wacoan of the Year

Gayle Lacy

By Megan Willome


Photos by Larsen&Talbert Photography, larsenandtalbert.com / Styling by Revekah Echols / Special thanks: Hannah Kleinick & Waco Mammoth National Monument

On a Tuesday evening in July, Gayle Lacy received a cryptic email from the White House Council on Environmental Quality, inviting her to “a small White House event celebrating local conservation efforts in Texas.” The event was to take place on Friday of the same week. Although the invitation was vague, Lacy, president of the Waco Mammoth Foundation, had a pretty good idea of what the event would entail.

Since the accidental discovery of a Columbian mammoth bone in 1978, Wacoans have worked together to protect that fossil and all the others that have been found since. For more than a decade, a partnership involving Baylor University, the City of Waco and, eventually, the Waco Mammoth Foundation sought admission of the site to the National Park Service (NPS). To date, the fossils of 23 mammoths have been discovered, and there may be more.

The following day, a Wednesday, Lacy was in a meeting with the parks and recreation department, which had administered the site as a city park since 2009. A park ranger showed an example of what the official banner — with the iconic NPS arrowhead logo — would look like if the site became part of the national park system. Someone mentioned Washington, D.C. and how the process to have the site recognized as a national park was unfolding.

Lacy couldn’t hold it in. “I’m going!” she announced.

Then Lacy was presented with a copy of the Waco Mammoth National Monument official NPS park brochure. This was really happening. Lacy got in her car, placed the brochure in her lap and took a picture of it. She sent the photo to her grown kids and to her husband, Walter.

“He said, ‘We need to meet somewhere. I’ve got to see this thing.’ So we met in the Community Bank & Trust parking lot,” Lacy said.

That Friday, July 10, 2015, Lacy and her husband were in Washington, D.C. when President Obama signed Presidential Proclamation No. 9299, making the Waco Mammoth National Monument the 408th unit of the National Park Service.

Sometimes the person who gets the thing done, who drives it across the finish line, is not the person out front. That behind-the-scenes person might never take center stage. That person might not even consider herself very important to the success of the venture. We think otherwise.

Without a Gayle Lacy, there wouldn’t be a Waco Mammoth National Monument. That’s why she’s our 2015 Wacoan of the Year.

“A park in a box with a bow on it.”

“We presented them a park in a box with a bow on it,” said Lacy. “It impressed NPS that we did this on our own, and they did not have to go and build a site.”

That phrase comes from Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior. At the official ceremony on October 5, 2015, that welcomed the Waco Mammoth National Monument into the National Park Service, Jewel addressed NPS Director Jon Jarvis and said, “I don’t think, Jon, ever, in the history of the National Park Service, have we had delivered to us, really, a national park in a box with a bow on it.”

The crowd of Wacoans cheered. Jewell went on to say that what makes this park unique is that it was built by partnerships. Think of the development of the mammoth site as the construction of a four-legged stool. The first partner was Baylor University. The young men who discovered the first bone immediately took it to the Strecker Museum, which is now the Mayborn Museum Complex at Baylor.

Then Baylor and the City of Waco formed a partnership. The site became a municipal park six years ago, and its maintenance budget is provided by the city’s parks and recreation department.

Out of the Baylor and city partnership came the Waco Mammoth Foundation — that’s three legs. The foundation raised a total of $4.2 million to build a welcome center and the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, UV-protected dig shelter where the fossils lay.

Finally, after years of evaluation by federal experts, after trying and failing to make the site a national park through legislation, the president used the Antiquities Act to add the site to the National Park Service, the fourth leg of the stool.

Russ Whitlock, park superintendent over the Waco site, said the NPS is “thrilled to be part of the partnership now.” He added,

President Obama

President Obama met with Gayle Lacy in the Oval Office on July 10, 2015. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

“It’s always going to be a partnership park. It’s a national monument surrounded by a city park, and from the earliest evaluations, that’s always been the thinking on the part of the NPS, Baylor and the city. A partnership led by NPS.”

From the beginning, the goal of the Waco Mammoth Foundation was for the site to become part of the National Park Service. Lacy and fellow board member Dr. Ellie Caston wanted nothing less.

“People said, ‘Don’t you want to be part of the state parks system?’” Lacy recalled. “We’re like, ‘Thanks, but no thanks. We want national parks.’ We waited it out.”

Caston, former director of the Mayborn Museum and a senior lecturer in Baylor’s museum studies department, agrees.

“All of us have been absolutely adamant that we want to be NPS because it says something to people,” Caston said. “They travel from national park to national park. I believe in my heart of hearts this could be titled How a Community Builds a National Park.”

Lacy affirms that this park is unique because of its partnerships.

“This is a partnership park: City of Waco, Baylor, National Park Service, Waco Mammoth Foundation,” Lacy said. “That’s why they called this ‘a park in a box with a bow on it.’”

Gayle Lacy probably doesn’t think she should be Wacoan of the Year, but I’m sure she has a list of people she thinks deserve the honor alongside her. At the top of that list would be Gloria Young.

Gayle on Gloria.

Gloria and her husband, F.M., have a long history of philanthropy in Waco. The list is too long for one small section, but they have graciously given to Baylor University, Historic Waco Foundation and Providence Heart Hospital. When it came to the Waco Mammoth Foundation, they didn’t only ask for money — they were one of the most significant donors to the project.

The Youngs’ association with the mammoth site goes back to 1978, when Calvin Smith contacted F.M. to ask for a backhoe. Smith needed to build berms and trenches to protect the site from rain. So F.M., a highway contractor, loaned Smith first one backhoe and then, when it needed some work, loaned him another.

When Young chaired the fundraising subgroup for the mammoth site, Young and Lacy often went together to ask for money. “We got advice that you need to go in pairs and you need to make an appointment,” said Young. “We’d go as a team. Gayle went with me a lot.”

Young has served as secretary/treasurer for the Waco Mammoth Foundation since October 2012, when she took her husband’s place on the board. F.M. had served in the same role from 2006-2012.

The day I met with Young, Lacy, Ellie Caston, Raegan King and Peggy McCart at the Waco Mammoth National Monument, it rained 6 inches in Waco (some reports said 10 inches). There was flooding all over town, perhaps not unlike the floods that trapped 19 mammoths 68,000 years ago. When Young arrived, she announced, “We’re re-enacting the event! Except that instead of a nursery herd, we’re a matron herd!”

It’s easy to see why Young has been the spokesperson for the mammoths for so long, as well as the primary fundraiser.

“Gloria is tenacious and gracious, often at the same time. Our very successful fundraising campaign is overwhelmingly the result of these two traits. She has a way of winning you over while dipping into your pocketbook during a single conversation,” said Lacy. “As our spokesperson, she has charmed every audience, whether it was at a media event, a ladies’ luncheon or a committee meeting.”

Just as Young and Lacy often went two by two to solicit funds for the mammoth site, in the same way, their roles in securing the NPS designation were complementary — Lacy behind the scenes, Young out front.

“Gloria will always be known as the woman who saved the mammoths,” said Lacy, “and I am very honored to have traveled the same path with such a dear friend and passionate advocate for the Waco Mammoth National Monument.”

“Let’s get ’er done!”

Lacy is a Wacoan. She grew up here, graduated from Reicher Catholic High School, then went to Baylor and majored in education. She did her student teaching at Midway High School and then taught senior English at Midway from 1976-86.

She married Walter Lacy III, whose family is in the banking business. He is semi-retired. The Lacys have two children: a daughter, Sarah, who is finishing her third year at University of Texas at Austin School of Law; and a son, Walt, who is a pilot with United Airlines.

“I’m a homemaker. I was a teacher a million years ago,” Lacy said. “When I got to be kind of the point person and talking to people in D.C., lots of times I was standing in my bathrobe in my bedroom at noon talking to the Secret Service.”

Walter Lacy was one of the founding members of Strecker Associates, which supported the Strecker Museum. Lacy joined the board as well. In 2006, the Waco Mammoth Foundation was incorporated, and Lacy was appointed to the board at the end of that year. She was first elected president of the foundation in May 2008, and she has been president ever since.

“We just keep re-electing her because she’s so wonderful. I make the motion, and someone quickly seconds it,” said Baylor’s Ellie Caston. “She has it all organized, she doesn’t get overwhelmed. She’s kind of like, ‘Let’s get ’er done.’ She’s just Gayle, and she doesn’t want to dress up and take all the credit.”

The Waco Mammoth National Monument

The Waco Mammoth National Monument conducts guided walking tours every 30 minutes with no reservations required. Photo provided by the City of Waco.

Now that the site is a national monument, the board will undergo changes in order to comply with NPS regulations. Lacy and the other officers will attend a three-day workshop in January to learn more.

Lacy said she does not overcommit herself. Other than serving on the Waco Mammoth Foundation board, her only other board commitment is with Oakwood Cemetery.

“I take on one task at a time, so with this mammoth thing, when I have a mammoth job to do, I do it,” she said.

That focus makes her efficient. When I contacted Lacy to schedule an interview, within a couple of hours she’d invited along four other crucial people. I thought to myself, “This is how the mammoth project got done.”

When I told Suzanne Dixon, senior director of regional programs at the National Parks Conservation Association, how Lacy turned our one-on-one into a roundtable, Dixon said, “That’s so Gayle — ‘talk to everybody else.’”

Dixon, who worked alongside Lacy this year to get the site admitted to the National Park Service, thinks this could not have happened without Lacy’s “can-do” personality.

“There should be a Gayle Lacy appreciation day!” Dixon said. “Gayle gets things done. She was at the helm. She’s not gonna give up. She’s someone who made this happen. She understood that the community needed to come together and raise money and tell the story until the National Park Service could come into the community. That takes a lot to continue to fight and be positive and keep people hanging on and believing — her vision was Waco was going to have a national monument.”

But becoming part of the national park system took a long time, much longer than anyone expected.

“Frankly, at times it was frustrating it was taking this long,” Dixon said. “She never gave up on the vision.”

How sure was Lacy that the site would eventually become part of the national park system? When the Waco Mammoth Site built its entrance sign, Lacy made sure space was left for the NPS arrowhead.

“She wanted an NPS logo on the sign,” said Dixon. “When we were in D.C., we printed the photo [of the entrance sign], and we’d say, ‘What’s missing from this picture?’”

Dixon added. “Gayle is someone who, as a part of the Waco Mammoth Foundation, really has spent years and years trying to tell the story of the Waco mammoth site and was instrumental, along with Gloria Young, in raising $4.2 million in order for the story to be told.”

“Patience was a large requirement in getting it done,” Young said. “Gayle, she stayed with it. She was constant in her dealings with all of the entities, being persistent and keeping up contact with them.”

Former City Manager Larry Groth described Lacy this way: “She’s very committed to the project and just wanted to keep doing what she could do to make things happen.” He also gave credit to Young for helping “people catch the imagination and open up their pocketbooks.”

Lacy worked with a lot of people during this process, not only in Waco, but also in Washington, D.C.

“She’d keep track of the legislation,” said Peggy McCart, program administrator for the parks and recreation department. “She’s done a good job of coordinating things.”

Site Manager Raegan King said Lacy has been part of the site since its infancy.

“She’s been driving this train for so many years. What she does well is she knows how to gather all the forces: ‘This is our goal. Let’s do this!’” King said. “She’s always been very aware of community initiatives and involvement and how to harness that philanthropy and spin it to benefit all of us. She’s the hero!”

Lacy sees her role more modestly.

“Maybe I’m a peacemaker? A mediator? I’m very organized. That goes back to the English teacher in me,” she said. “I think I provide leadership on the foundation board. In a way, my personality is such that I’m even-tempered, and I get along with a whole lot of people. When you’re dealing with lots of strong personalities, strong individuals, sometimes there’s some head-butting. I found I was kind of a good mediator among different factions.”

Park Superintendent Russ Whitlock thinks Waco is lucky to have people like Lacy and Young, who are “heart and soul committed to this place. They eat, sleep, drink, live the Waco mammoth site,” he said.

“Gayle is another shining example of Americans through the centuries that have said, ‘This is somewhere special, and it needs to be protected for all people to enjoy it,’” Whitlock said. “Gayle is every bit that kind of person: ‘We want this to be a national monument, and we’re not going to stop until it is.’ As the president of that foundation, she took the reins and said, ‘Absolutely, we’re gonna make this happen.’”

“They won’t leave one behind.”

Every year the National Park Service holds a National Fossil Day. This year’s was held on October 14, and the agency had a participating park in all 50 states. Many of those parks have mammoth fossils. So why are Waco’s mammoths so special?

In 2007, the Mayborn Museum put out a book and accompanying video called “Mammoths in Waco: Exploring the Mystery.” The book was written by Jill Barrow, who served as educational director of the Mayborn for four years and was the previous director of Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center. In the video, paleontologist Greg McDonald, senior curator of natural history in the NPS’s Museum Management Program, said this is the only known site in North America where a herd — a nursery herd, composed of mothers and juveniles — died at the same time. They were buried in a mudslide. The bones are still in the original position.

In that same video, Anita Benedict, collections manager at the Mayborn, explained what the arrangement of the fossils tells us about mammoth behavior. The mammoths were found in a circular outward-facing defensive position. That means the mothers made a circle around their young and faced outward to protect them. Modern elephants do the same thing.

The site was discovered by two 19-year-olds, Paul Barron and Eddie Bufkin, who were looking for something interesting along a dry creek bed beside the Bosque River. They found a very large bone sticking out of a ravine and knew it was too large to belong to a cow. It turned out to be the femur of a Columbian mammoth.

Although they lived during the ice age at the same time as woolly mammoths, Columbian mammoths were bigger — 14 feet tall. They weighed up to 20,000 pounds. These herbivores had less hair than woolly mammoths and lived farther south.

The young men who found the bone thought it might belong to a mammoth, but they never suspected that over the next three decades, more fossils would be found at the site, including 23 mammoths (so far), a Western camel, a juvenile saber tooth cat, a dwarf antelope, an American alligator, a giant tortoise and one other critter that has not yet been identified. Every bone is accounted for.

“From the first bone that Eddie and Paul found, they took it to the Strecker Museum, and that’s our museum,” said Caston. “So often, when a paleontological site is found, over the decades different universities will dig. So to realize that no [university] except Baylor has ever excavated and has all the documentation, all the photographs, all of the maps, and there was nothing lost. For that many years! Nothing is missing because it’s all been done by one university, and it went right back into our collection storage.”

The Waco Mammoth Foundation

The Waco Mammoth Foundation helped raise funds for the state-of-the-art, climate-controlled, UV-protected dig shelter.

Another amazing part of this story is that no one tried to profit from the discovery of the mammoths — not Barron and Bufkin, who found the fossils; not Sam Jack McGlasson, who owned the land; not any of the volunteers who assisted with the excavation. Moreover, the site was never vandalized. There is a market for fossils. Someone could have tried to make money from such a significant site. No one did.

Paleontologists now believe three catastrophic events occurred at the site, separated by tens of thousands of years. The first was the demise of the nursery herd. It’s believed that in a second event, the saber tooth cat and the unidentified animal died. The third event likely involved a bull mammoth, another juvenile and an adult female who perished in a different flood.

The first 16 mammoths, discovered between 1978-90, are in storage at the Mayborn. The rest of the fossils are in situ, in the ground, protected by a dig shelter that allows for scientific study and public viewing. The dig shelter was designed using research collected by Benedict, who did her thesis at Baylor on in situ material kept inside a building. She evaluated sites across the country, looking at what worked and what didn’t. The mammoth shelter is kept at 72 degrees, and humidity ranges between 55-60 percent. Direct exposure from UV light is limited to only 4 percent. The shelter is built over the actual spot where the fossils were discovered, and most of them are still right there in the ground.

To learn more about the mammoths, I took a tour of the Waco Mammoth National Monument with Raegan King, site manager, who has also given tours to former first lady Laura Bush and Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell. King has a bachelor’s degree in mammalian biology and a master’s in museum science and has been supervising the site since 2012.

WACOAN: What’s the difference between a national park and a national monument?

King: A monument has scientific importance. A park is recreational.

WACOAN: What makes this site special?

King: We’re the only site in the NPS that focuses on mammoths. This is the most unusual and important paleontological site in the country.

Lots of animals die — they don’t all become fossils. Mud and clay covered these and preserved them. Very rarely are bones left exactly in place, like they are here.

Since these are only 65,000 years old, not 65 million years old, they’re still very bonelike. That tusk, it is ivory. It’s not hard as rock, though. It’s more pliable than regular bone.

WACOAN: Where are the other mammoth bones that aren’t here in the dig shelter?

King: All the collection is in Waco, either in situ or in plaster jackets in storage by the Mayborn Museum. The Mayborn has state-of-the-art protective storage.

[Editor’s note: A plaster jacket, similar to a cast for a broken bone, is applied to a fossil in the field to stabilize it before it is put in storage.]

WACOAN: How did the mammoths become extinct?

King: The mammoths suffered a series of unfortunate events. People showed up at the end of the ice age and hunted. The grassland couldn’t thrive, so camels and horses dwindled. Then the predators died, like wolves, saber tooth cats. It’s the collapse of an ecosystem. These mammoths couldn’t adapt fast enough.

Kids come in here, and they know all about dinosaurs; they don’t know about mammoths. Mammoths aren’t dinosaurs. This is an era between humans and dinosaurs, but closer to humans.

WACOAN: What can you tell me about the saber tooth cat found here?

King: It’s the only saber in Texas. It’s in between the two layers [of sediment]. There’s also the rib of an unidentified grazing animal. Unless we find more material, we may not be able to identify it.

WACOAN: When I first heard about the site, I was told there was one flooding event. Now it sounds like scientists have discovered there was more than one.

King: There were two different flooding events. Mammoth Q [the only male discovered] — he’s the one replicated at the Mayborn with the juvenile. Originally, it seemed like he was saving it, being a dad protecting his offspring. Now we can solve the mystery differently with better technology, but there’s no DNA available. Was he protecting [the juvenile], or was it bones sliding together? It’s one of our mysteries. We don’t see other remains where babies are cradled in tusks.

We look at what elephants do in the wild. We see females from nursery herds protecting — that’s something we see in elephants today. They’re a protective herd. They won’t leave one behind.

A fossil telling you about animal behavior equals paleontology.

WACOAN: Are there other mammoth fossils in Central Texas?

King: Someone called us who found one near Waxahachie. Now that we’re with NPS, we will have access to first-class NPS paleontologists. We want to be called in if someone finds a mammoth on their land. We would like to be able to study and compare.

“A hole in the ground.”

One of the most important things that happened to protect the mammoths occurred when Dr. Ellie Caston became director of the Mayborn and closed the site — no more digging, no more removing bones.

“I took on the directorship in 2002, and one of the first things I did that made everybody mad was close down the site.”

At the time, Lacy was not pleased. Neither was Gloria Young.

“We didn’t even invite her [Caston] to the first organization meeting that we had,” Young said.

But that animosity didn’t last. Closing the site ended up being its best protection. That decision led to a series of important meetings between Baylor and the City of Waco.

2015 Wacoan of the Year, Gayle Lacy

2015 Wacoan of the Year, Gayle Lacy

“And then we started inviting her!” Lacy said.

Caston said her tenure as director of the Mayborn provided “bookends” for the site.

“The first thing I did in August 2002, [when I became director] was to close the site, and then to have it declared a national park three weeks before I retired? I officially retired as director of the Mayborn on July 31,” she said. “Talk about bookends!”

Larry Groth, former Waco city manager, became a critical member of the partnership, working closely with Caston.

“Larry was a past master at guiding, leading and understanding people and creating a workable situation out of something that had been hostile prior to that,” Young said. “You’ve gotta give Larry credit. He made us aware that if we take all the bones out, the site has no value — it’s a hole in the ground.”

Groth and Caston described those meetings and the process that led to the partnership between Baylor and the city, which then led to the incorporation of the Waco Mammoth Foundation.

“The five-acre track where the core of the remains are was given to the city by Sam Jack and Elizabeth McGlasson [in 1996],” Groth said. “In the deed, it required that the city would work with Baylor University for the development of the site and the maintenance of the bones. There was some language in there about how we should have a formal agreement for how that would work. For a long time, we just worked together. The city and Baylor would cooperate, what little bit we could do without a lot of money at the time.”

But Caston knew the National Park Service would eventually evaluate the site.

“I knew we were going to have serious NPS people coming. I thought, ‘We’ve gotta get it together.’ That’s why I closed it. Too many people knew where it was, and I was so afraid it would be plundered.”

Groth said the city did its own study to determine the site’s value as a tourist attraction.

“It became pretty obvious that we’d need to do significant development,” he said. “We needed a better handle on how the city and Baylor would work together. I met with Ellie and university lawyers. So we negotiated an agreement of how that would work, and part of that was the Waco Mammoth Foundation.”

Documents were created that formalized the partnerships, each entity doing what it does best.

“That’s when we sat down and said, ‘This is a joint project. The city and Baylor, for better or worse, we’re kinda married here,’” Caston said. “[I told Larry,] ‘The parks know how to operate parks — really well. That’s what you guys do. Museums know how to curate material. That’s what we do best. We’ll work together, and we’ll bring our strengths to the table.’”

Meanwhile, the city’s study confirmed that, in Groth’s words, “it was a really special site.”

“There was no point in digging more until we got a handle on what else we were going to do,” he said. “There wasn’t any big argument — Baylor and the city recognized it was time to stop digging, so we did. In some cases, the bones, they’re protected by staying in situ. More than that, research techniques get better every year. When we do resume digging, there may be better techniques, better aging processes.”

Caston agrees.

“It’s good policy in archeology and paleontology to do what’s called ‘bank assigned.’ It’s been in the ground 68,000 years — that’s the best place for it. And we have to think 50 years from now for visitors to have something to look at,” she said. “When the [NPS] paleontologists came out here, they said, ‘Boy, that was a good idea to close the site down.’”

“This is on faith.”

At the time the site was closed, the only protection for the bones was a circus tent. Security consisted of a chain-link fence covered with poison ivy. Chiggers served as guards.

The mammoths deserved better. But better takes money. Enter, the subgroup.

Before the Waco Mammoth Foundation was chartered, there was a fundraising subgroup chaired by Gloria Young. Lacy served on it as well. The committee, which eventually became part of the foundation, was like the little engine that could. It kept the mammoth site in the minds and hearts of the community and raised funds to turn it into a protected park.

“We called ourselves an advisory committee. From that loose committee, it expanded, and I was appointed the chair of the fundraising committee,” Young said. Serving as chair turned out to be a bigger job than she expected.

“I didn’t hear the train coming!” she quipped.

Young and Lacy, along with Kay Olson, who is also a member of the Waco Mammoth Foundation, put together a fundraising luncheon. Young called it a “build your own sandwich” luncheon. Each participant could view the artist’s renderings of what the new buildings at the site would look like — for only $10,000. It might sound like a crazy idea, but people came, and they paid to see the plans.

Peggy McCart, with the parks and recreation department, remembers how Young charmed donors.

“One of my favorite stories is Gloria talking about [when] they’d go to these people and say, ‘We need $10,000 from you, but we can’t take you there. We can’t show it to you. This is on faith. You’re giving this money for the future,’” McCart said. “The money came from so many places, on faith, from people who’d never seen the bones, who wouldn’t be able to see the bones for a long time.”

The mystery added to the interest.

“The interest was so remarkable and intense in this site mainly because it was kept a mystery. Nobody knew where it was,” Lacy said. “One time for a membership drive for Strecker Associates, we said if you’ll become a member, we’ll take you out to the site. We doubled our membership over one Saturday in October!”

People gave money, whether they had seen the site or whether they just treasured the idea of the mammoths. A man who turned 100 donated $100 to the project. Students in Jo Anne Beaty’s class at Hillcrest PDS Elementary School organized Makeovers & Manicures for Mammoths, which ran for three years and raised $600. More than 200 donors contributed.

Meanwhile, the Waco Mammoth Foundation began to get bids for the dig shelter and the welcome center. The foundation made sure each firm that bid on the construction used the design standards of the National Park Service. As if the site were already a national park. At this point, it wasn’t even a city park.

And there’s one thing you absolutely can’t do when you’re a national park — you can’t name anything for anyone.

“All of a sudden, we’re trying to raise these millions with no naming rights,” said Young. “You can’t have a stone, a rock, a bench — nothing can be named.”

“That’s a credit to the community as well,” Lacy said.

“Egos went away,” Young said.

“And a lot of donors have big egos,” Lacy added.

While fundraising, Waco Mammoth Foundation did not spend money to raise money.

“We wanted to do everything on the cheap,” Lacy said. “We didn’t want to spend a dime of the foundation money. We don’t have any administrative fees. We don’t have an executive director. We’ve been cost-conscious. We’re very, very careful with our funds.”

They relied heavily on McCart, who serves as the de facto unpaid staff member for the Waco Mammoth Foundation.

“I was mostly involved with providing staff support for the foundation. That was my primary role was getting whatever materials they needed — fundraising folders, donation cards. The city paid for all the fundraising stuff,” McCart said. She described her attitude as, “How high do I jump, and how fast do you want it?”

Young said everything McCart put together was beautifully done.

“She put together these very professional-looking packets for us for when we were going to go out and solicit money,” Young said.

“And she’s also an archivist for us,” added Lacy. “If you want to access anything from the history of this whole thing, you just ask Peggy.” And then Lacy bowed to McCart.

Which made Caston jump in. “I could not agree more,” she said. “Peggy has been our backbone through the whole thing.”

Armed with professional packets and a persuasive story, Waco Mammoth Foundation raised $1.7 million over two years. The projected building cost was $3.5 million. The city would not let construction begin until the entire amount was raised. In 2007, the Paul and Jane Meyer Family Foundation matched the money raised thus far and put in another $1.7 million. On September 4, 2008, they broke ground for a permanent dig shelter and welcome center. The site opened as a municipal park on December 5, 2009.

“It was an uphill battle.”

Since the federal government is the fourth leg of the stool, its help was necessary to turn the municipal park into a national monument. But it was not a straightforward path.

The federal process started in 2001, when then-U.S. Representative Chet Edwards introduced legislation to have the site evaluated by the National Park Service. That bill passed in 2002, leading to site visits by NPS paleontologist Greg McDonald and Michelle D’Arcy, a landscape architect with the NPS Intermountain Region office.

“The National Park Service, they did a preliminary study to see if a special resource study needed to be done,” Lacy explained. The NPS recommended moving forward.

Then in 2006, Congressman Edwards secured a $200,000 grant called Save America’s Treasures that funded the Special Resource Study/Environmental Assessment. The grant had to be matched, so Baylor put in $100,000 and the City of Waco put in $100,000. When that study was published in 2008, it said that Waco’s site belonged in the national park system.

Or, as Ellie Caston put it, “That validated that we had a fabulous site.”

For several years legislative means were pursued. With support from U.S. representatives and U.S. senators from both parties, the site should have become part of the National Park Service through an act of Congress. It didn’t.

Larry Groth did his part.

“To get us to a national park, it was an uphill battle. I went to Washington several times, testifying on several bills, from Republicans and Democrats,” he said.

It never came to anything.

Peggy McCart remembered, “The national park people were saying sometimes it takes 10 years. But we were in there for the long haul — the city, the Waco Mammoth Foundation, Baylor, the site — everyone was committed.”

Lacy and the Waco Mammoth Foundation learned a lot about the legislative process. In 2010, one senator put a hold on the legislation, keeping a vote from occurring. And in 2013, the federal government shutdown put a halt to the process. Even a grass-roots petition went nowhere.

Then a proposal was made in Congress to admit the Waco site into the National Park Service, but without any funding. The idea alarmed Suzanne Dixon of the National Parks Conservation Association, the NPCA.

Dixon was so helpful to the mammoth site’s journey that Waco Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. issued an official proclamation naming October 6, 2015, “Suzanne Dixon Day.”

Since 1919, the NPCA has served as a nonpartisan nonprofit working to enhance and protect national parks. Lacy called them “the lobbying arm of the National Park Service.”

“They have their eyes on all the legislation, and [that proposal] raised so many red flags with NPCA,” Lacy explained. If a site becomes a national park, it needs oversight. There should be consistency and quality from park to park, whether you’re at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Waco, Texas, or Glacier National Park in West Glacier, Montana.

“That’s when the NPCA jumps in. They start talking to us, and they started saying, ‘This is untenable. You can’t do that. If you’re gonna put the arrowhead up, you have to have some accountability,’” Lacy said.

Dixon said that immediately, Lacy “understood the politics.”

“There were two ways to do this — one was through the legislative process, and we tried that for so many years. A year and a half ago, [I went to Lacy and said,] ‘I’m asking you to do the same things but under the Antiquities Act,’ and she did it. We pivoted from the legislative process to the Antiquities Act strategy.”

The Antiquities Act of 1906 allows the president to designate “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated upon the lands owned or controlled by the Government of the United States.” These lands then become national monuments. Devil’s Tower in Wyoming was the first national monument. It was designated by President Teddy Roosevelt, who was the first president to use the Antiquities Act.

And so, a new process began, with Dixon closely involved.

“We facilitated meetings for the City of Waco, the Waco Mammoth Foundation and Baylor University to say we supported the previous legislative efforts, but now we’re asking for a national monument,” Dixon explained. “[Lacy] worked with the City of Waco to do the resolution.”

In September 2014, Waco City Council unanimously approved a resolution supporting the president’s use of the Antiquities Act to make the site part of the National Park Service. The federal entities needed to see that official local support.

And then it was time to go to Washington, D.C. to do some lobbying.

“We come bearing gifts.”

In October 2014, a delegation consisting of City Manager Dale Fisseler, Ellie Caston, Raegan King and Gayle Lacy traveled to the nation’s capitol to work with Suzanne Dixon and encourage the president to consider using the Antiquities Act to make Waco’s mammoth site a unit of the National Park Service.

Caston, Lacy and King recount the story. Even though Gloria Young couldn’t attend, she joined in the conversation.

Caston: We were sent to Washington.

Lacy: I say it was like [the movie] ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’

Caston: We really had no clue as to what we were doing. We didn’t even realize, I don’t think, the importance of the people we were meeting with.

Lacy: We’d hear we were going to meet with the Council on Environmental Quality, CEQ, all these acronyms — CEQ, DOI, NPS. We’d go home and Google. We didn’t know what it was. We Googled Council on Environmental Quality, and it was like, OK, they have the ear of the president.

Caston: We met with Nikki Buffa, deputy director of the department of the interior. And all these national park people and all these lawyers kept coming in.

Lacy: All these lawyers at CEQ. And we brought our little pins, our mammoth pins, and gave them to all these guys and our little brochures. I said, ‘We come bearing gifts,’ and all these guys in D.C., they put the pins on their lapels.

Caston: We’re sitting in this stairway with the QEC.

Lacy: CEQ!

Caston: CEQ! [Laughs.] There were three men, and the four of us sitting there.

They said, ‘Tell us about the mammoth site.’ That opened the floodgates. Each one of us is swinging our arms around about how wonderful it was, how much it meant to us.

Lacy: We were telling Gloria’s stories.

Young: I couldn’t go. I had a bad knee. And then about the time to go for the signing in the Oval Office, I had surgery. Knee replacement.

Lacy: We thought we represented Gloria well. I said, ‘I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of the McGlassons and Paul Meyer and Gloria Young.’

Caston: We were just our Waco selves.

Young: Just like we are right now.

Lacy: They could tell the enthusiasm and the excitement.

Caston: It was three guys. At the end they probably thought, ‘Good grief!’

Lacy: I think they did!

Caston: We’re so real. [The people at CEQ] did mention that sometimes people come in and they’re very formal. And we were real people, a breath of fresh air.

King: The NPCA political strategist, she told us, ‘The CEQ, they’re used to these very stressful meetings. We’re not used to these nice, quiet, soft-spoken museum people.’

Lacy: And then after we flew home, Molly Ross [special assistant to the director of the National Park Service] — Molly Ross is a solicitor with NPS.

Caston: [In March 2015] Molly Ross called me and said, ‘I want to bring my team to Waco. Key people are interested in seeing this happen.’

I was like, ‘Could you tell us who they are?’

Young: They never did.

Lacy: [Ross] had visited the site. She was familiar with our enthusiasm, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful woman. She contacted us after we’d been up there, and she said, ‘You really made an impression!’

“Those people in Waco mean business.”

In order for the president to use the Antiquities Act, a specific process must be followed. Part of that involves the National Park Service coming to the site not only to evaluate it, but also to hold a town hall meeting to gauge community support. On April 6, 2015, Waco welcomed Director Jon Jarvis at a public forum with 300 attendees at the Mayborn’s SBC Theater.

Suzanne Dixon from the NPCA was there as well.

“He heard from so many people in the community that night — from kids, from students who moved here to study the mammoths, to people who wanted jobs in the NPS, to moms and dads, grandparents,” she said.

Ellie Caston, Gayle Lacy, Reagan King, Gloria Young and Peggy McCart pick up the story from there.

Caston: There were seven people [from NPS] who came, six or seven. They brought Michelle D’Arcy and Greg McDonald in from Denver and three or four from D.C. Michelle and Greg were involved in the original study, so it was neat for them to be here. Michelle had not seen the [dig] shelter. The last time she saw [the site], there was a tent over it. To be able to come back [and say,] ‘It’s not only great, it’s better because it’s been protected through the years.

They were so impressed with the shelter. They came to the museum and saw the state-of-the-art collection storage. They saw the credible, serious science part of it.

And then Russ Whitlock came up for a meeting as well. The city manager [was there], city attorneys, Baylor attorneys. It was a marathon of paperwork. That’s when we hammered it out — who would be in charge of what, operational issues. We spent a whole day together. We all had to feel comfortable. It all had to be ready to go if they could convince the president to use the Antiquities Act.

But then the town meeting takes on this feeling of community love and support.

Lacy: And when Jon Jarvis came for the town hall meeting, I shook his hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Gayle Lacy with the Waco Mammoth Foundation,’ and [he said,] ‘I’ve heard about you.’

Young: I was trying to think how all this happened. I was trying to think how to do this [tell this story] so it would be informal. I think that human touch really resonated with Director Jarvis, and he picked up on it.

Lacy: We had the mayor speak at that. Ellie spoke at that. Judge Starr did a ‘Sic ’em mammoth site.’ That really impressed them that we’re all in this together and all the partners are that enthusiastic.

Young: The night of the town hall meeting, when Director Jarvis was here, I was so amazed at the people who came forward to speak who were not from Waco.

Lacy: It was an open mic. But we were a little worried because that was the crap shoot. But 100 percent of the comments were positive. There were even some students that came from UT in Austin, in the paleontology [department]. We’d pass the mic.

Caston: At the very end [Director Jarvis] showed his cards. He said, ‘I’m going back and recommending it.’

Lacy: And you should’ve heard the noise!

King: It was a standing ovation!

Lacy: The whole room just exploded!

Caston: And sitting quietly in the audience was Nikki Buffa, deputy chief of staff for Sally Jewell [secretary of the interior].

Lacy: She flew in late, under the radar. She was very quiet. But we knew she was there.

Caston: The process is Jon Jarvis goes back to report, to recommend it to Sally Jewell. And she had somebody in the audience who could say, ‘Those people have got it together. They are all over this.’

Lacy: Those people in Waco mean business.

Caston: Then it kind of went quiet, went underground.

Lacy: That was in April. We’re all knowing it’s gonna happen, maybe? When? How’s this work? We’re all taking trips: ‘I hope it doesn’t happen when I’m on vacation.’

McCart: There was a lot of prep work that had to be done prior to [the designation]. We worked with the National Park Service in relation to getting a survey, doing an update of the environmental assessment, having all the legal paperwork ready to go for the land transfer of the monument area. We had meetings at city hall with all their NPS attorneys and working up the legal aspect. We worked out all that and had that in place so that when/if the designation took place, boom it was done.

King: While they were working on that, I was working with Michelle D’Arcy, getting our brochure ready, doing the website. Because again, we had to be ready —

Lacy: Once that arrowhead goes up —

King: We had to be prepared to be a national park.

“Where’s my tusk? I thought you’d bring me a tusk.”

On July 10, 2015, President Obama signed Presidential Proclamation No. 9299, making the Waco Mammoth National Monument the 408th unit of the National Park Service. Gayle Lacy, Ellie Caston, Tommye Lou Davis (another Waco Mammoth Foundation board member) and Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr. traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet the president and attend a rooftop reception at the Department of the Interior.

Only National Park Service employees were in the Oval Office during the signing. Park superintendent Russ Whitlock was one of them.

“I’m there in uniform with the secretary of the interior and the director of the National Park Service, and there was that momentary lull,” Whitlock recalled. “And I said, ‘Mr. President, you’re making a lot of people in Texas very happy today.’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m glad to do that. I don’t do that very often.’”

Lacy, Caston, Young, King and McCart tell the rest of the story.

Lacy: The designation was on Friday, the 10th of July. The prior Thursday, I got a call from someone at CEQ. It was an intern: ‘Mrs. Lacy, this is CEQ, and we need some information.’ And it was my social [security number], date of birth, passport number — all the stuff you’re never, ever, ever supposed to give to anybody. And she didn’t say who else she was calling.

Caston: And you weren’t supposed to talk about it.

Lacy: You weren’t supposed to talk about it at all. She sent me an email to fill in these questions, and it said that I was going to be invited to a Texas conservation event in Washington, D.C. And there are all these security clearance questions. So I typed it all in, and before I pushed Send, I called my husband, and I said, ‘Walter, how do you know this is OK? This is everything they tell every senior not to do.’

I knew this was coming up, but I didn’t know if somebody else knew this was coming up and they were scamming me because they knew that I was expecting this.

Young: I was totally full of pain medicine from my [knee] surgery, and I get this phone call, and this woman tells me she’s calling from the White House? And she wants this information, my social security number. And I said, ‘I don’t give anybody that.’

Caston: [Gayle] called me, and said, ‘Did I just do something really stupid?’ And I said, ‘It’s fine,’ because Tom Elson [from the Office of Public Engagement, White House Council on Environmental Quality] was actually the one who called me. It wasn’t an intern.
We knew something was afoot, but they kept it so secret.

Lacy: We were not to talk to anyone at the newspaper. And J.B. Smith [reporter] has been our biggest fan always. We felt so awful. That was so hard. They embargoed the press release, and everything had to come from NPS.

[My husband] Walter is real curious about everything. We didn’t know what day we were going to go, and we were going to have to buy airline tickets. So he was Googling the president’s schedule, and he was Googling the secretary of the interior’s schedule. I told Ellie what he was doing, and Ellie said, ‘Gayle, the FBI is going to wind up on your front door, and you’re not going anywhere because of Walter.’

King: [Peggy and I] had a heads-up maybe two days before y’all got your security clearance calls. I had a couple of people call and say, ‘I just got a call from the White House. Is this legit?’ I said, ‘I can neither confirm nor deny.’

Caston: It was Tuesday night that we got the official invitation to a small conservation ceremony at the White House on Friday. So we scrambled for airline tickets. Then we got [to Washington, D.C.] on Thursday. That night we got an email that said that, ‘You’re to be at the thing at 12:30.’ [Editor’s note: The email from the White House said, ‘We ask that you arrive to the Southwest visitors entrance at 17th and State Place no later than 12:30PM.’]

Lacy: Prior to when we left, I got a request for verification of email addresses. Those people, and my husband was one of those, were invited to a reception on the rooftop of the Department of the Interior that afternoon from 4-6 [p.m.]. Walter got to go to that; he didn’t get to go to the Oval Office.

Caston: And Anita Benedict [collections manager at Mayborn] that helped us so much.

Lacy: Obviously, no one from Waco who’s getting invited to a reception on a rooftop at DOI from 4-6 on one day is gonna go buy expensive tickets and go just for that. So those were the only two [Walter Lacy and Anita Benedict], with the exception of the four of us, that got to attend.

McCart: As they were walking, Gayle was texting and emailing me, ‘We’re walking from this building. We’re on the sidewalk. We’re walking into the White House. They may take up my phone.’

Lacy: They did! They took our phones.

Caston: Three rooms out!

Lacy: We waited in the Roosevelt Room, which is adjacent to the Oval Office.

Caston: Gayle and I were like 13-year-olds. We were terrible.

Lacy: We were chatting with the secretary of the interior [Sally Jewell].

Caston: There were three delegations. There were three things signed.

Lacy: Nevada, California and Texas [The Basin and Range in Nevada and Berryessa Snow Mountain in California]. We were not in there for the actual signing of the proclamation — that was three representatives from the National Park Service. They left, and then we came in, the delegation, the four of us. That’s why were in the holding room, waiting.

[Whitlock told us,] that when [the president] actually signed the proclamation, he tapped it twice and said, ‘This is for Waco.’

And then the white door opened, and there he was [President Obama]. He opened his own door.

Caston: At that point, Gayle grabbed my arm. I thought I was gonna lose it. There he is!

Lacy: We were so excited. He met each of us at the door and shook our hands. We all stood in front of his desk, the Resolute desk, and he stood in front and talked to us.

He said, ‘Where’s my tusk? I thought for sure you’d bring me a tusk.’

Then they took the official picture, and [the president] put his arm around Ellie and his arm around me. [Squeals.]

Caston: By the time we got out of the Oval Office, into the Rose Garden, we were all in tears.

Young: I’m as a diehard a Republican as they are Democrats. I would not have been as thrilled with the hug as they were, but I was thrilled with the signature.

Caston: It shows that it didn’t matter what party. We love our mammoth site.

Lacy: It’s totally bipartisan.

“Let’s go check it out.”

From the moment the president signed the proclamation, the Waco site became part of the National Park Service.

“I was busy at the site eagerly awaiting news of the signature and handling a lot of press,” King said. “I came to work at a city park that day and left it that night a national monument.”

The only thing that changed after the presidential signature was that visitation increased.

“In July and August, our monthly numbers doubled, and in September they tripled,” said King. “What used to be our slow month, September, it did not slow down one bit. It has helped our school visitation. I can’t keep the shelves stocked.”

King told Lacy that many of the people who came during the first two weeks after the signing were from the Waco area.
“The people were like, ‘Hey, this is a big deal. Let’s go check it out!’” Lacy said.

Caston added, “They wouldn’t come the day before NPS, but the day we became NPS it was like, ‘Oh my gosh! That must really be good.’”

It is really good, King explains.

“It has given us instant credibility. We are now in elite company. We’re the 408th unit of the National Park Service. We will be hiring interpretive rangers in addition to current staff,” King said. Interpretive rangers help explain what visitors are seeing — they help tell the park’s story. “We have access to a lot of professional experience to help us develop our park.”

Whitlock serves as superintendent of the Waco Mammoth National Monument from his office in Johnson City, where he also oversees the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park and the LBJ Ranch. King continues to manage the day-to-day operations at the Waco site.

“Reagan will supervise the city employees as well as the national park rangers, who will be reporting for duty about mid-November,” Whitlock said.

Baylor’s collection of mammoth fossils at the Mayborn are now part of the national park system.

“From the museum standpoint, we’re very excited that we’re a repository for the National Park Service,” Caston said.

And the city’s parks and recreation department has a maintenance budget for the site, to keep it running smoothly.

The Waco Mammoth Foundation’s next project is raising funds for the children’s discovery center, which will give kids an interactive play experience.

“Not a playground, but a discovery area that involves play. We have the plans drawn up. Now we can kick off the campaign,” Lacy said. The foundation has already raised $290,000 of the $1.2 million needed.

“The children’s discovery area is her new goal,” King said.

All four legs of the stool are sturdy.

Only one thing was lacking — the iconic arrowhead logo of the National Park Service on the entrance sign. The arrowhead went up on October 5, 2015, approximately three months after the site became a national monument. It took that long to coordinate the schedules of all the dignitaries, including Laura Bush, former first lady.

At the event, Bush said every summer she hikes in a national park with childhood friends from Midland. Bush and current first lady Michelle Obama are honorary co-chairs of the campaign celebrating the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

“Our national parks are the treasures of our country,” Bush said.

Representatives from each of the partners told part of the story: Gloria Young, Waco Mammoth Foundation; Mayor Malcolm Duncan Jr., City of Waco; and Judge Ken Starr, Baylor University. Russ Whitlock, park superintendent, gave former city manager Larry Groth an honorary park ranger hat to thank him for his support. (Groth was the emcee at the event.)

Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service, also spoke.

“It is so much fun to see that arrowhead right here at Waco Mammoth!” Jarvis said, adding that Young’s version of the story gets better every time she tells it. “[Gloria] summed it up with the word ‘love’ — there is a love for this place, this story, this site, these bones.”

The final speaker was Sally Jewell, secretary of the interior.

“I haven’t ever been to an event like this where the community pulled together and recognized that the future is about partnerships,” she said.

After the speeches, a group of fourth graders from Spring Valley Elementary School became part of the inaugural group to participate in the National Park Foundation’s Every Kid in a Park initiative, which gives one-year NPS passes to fourth graders and their families. The kids also participated in a miniature fossil dig.

Jewell reminded the crowd that by setting aside this land and protecting it, Waco did something for the United States of America. Thanks to Waco, our country has a new national treasure.

“It is a love story.”

I first saw the mammoth site in July 1993 when I was part of a Chamber of Commerce trip with about a dozen people. The circus tent was stretched over a giant hole in the ground. Calvin Smith, then-director of the Strecker Museum, told the story of the site, how the adult mammoths protected the juveniles in a flood. And for reasons I cannot explain, I started to love the mammoths.

When I told this to Gloria Young, she understood.

“That’s what happened. Every time someone came, they began to love the site and what it meant,” she said.

“It is a love story, the community’s love story,” Lacy added.

For the last 37 years, Waco and its mammoths have had a love story. A group of people, many of whom were interviewed for this article, formed partnerships, raised money, traveled and lobbied to protect the mammoths the same way those mammoths protected their young.

Larry Groth summed up the entire three-decade process when he said, “We just had a lot of great people pushing in the same direction.”

The person gently pushing them with a kind smile? Gayle Lacy.

Lacy described her role as “kind of the point person,” but there wasn’t any “kind of” about it. Think of Lacy as the hub of a wheel. There was a point person for the City of Waco, a point person for Baylor, a point person for fundraising and a point person for the site itself along with point persons in the National Park Service and in Washington, D.C. The one person keeping all those points moving in the same direction? Lacy.

Of course, she doesn’t see it that way. She’s just happy that the official NPS brochure for the Waco Mammoth National Monument now joins the others she has gathered over the years.

“I have a drawer in my dresser where I collect them,” Lacy said.

Last fall Lacy and her husband went to Acadia National Park in Maine. They’ve been to the big ones — Yosemite National Park in California — and the less well-known ones — Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan. And of course, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, where the Lacys once planned their entire vacation around the one night when they were able to make a reservation for a balcony room at the El Tovar Hotel, the premiere lodge in the park.

“We just love national parks,” Lacy said. “Walter and I, we love to take long driving trips. We were on a driving trip to Colorado, and it was either go home or go to South Dakota, to Mount Rushmore.”

So they drove another 300-plus miles, through a couple more states until they reached Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Lacy’s the kind of person who doesn’t stop at Colorado. Why not push on until you reach another national park? Why not push together with a lot of great people until a hole in the ground on the edge of Waco becomes a national monument?


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