Wildlife Department was like family to former employees
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.”
• What: Open house for new Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation headquarters
• When: Monday, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.
• Where: 1801 N. Lincoln Boulevard, Oklahoma City