How To Keep A Spirit Alive

Originally posted on social media on April 11, 2021

My grandpa, Dr. Paul Chaffee, is extraordinary. The most gentle human I’ve ever known; his life’s mission was caring for animals.

Grandpa died when I was 12, exactly Molly’s age. I remember my teacher gave me a card - isn’t it remarkable how small acts of kindness make such an impact? I don’t remember what I did yesterday, but I haven’t forgotten the feeling that card gave me.

Grandpa grew up in Michigan. After becoming a veterinarian, he moved his young family west. There was an opportunity to become director of the zoo in Fresno, CA. He spent the rest of his life transforming it into a wildlife haven, focusing on conservation and education. His bond with animals was a sight to behold. I remember walking through the zoo with him. The rhino would spot him behind the crowd, and come barreling over, like a dog greets his owner. The orangutan would see him and quite literally go apeshit (meaning, he threw his poop at his visitors). He deeply connected with every animal he encountered. I remember one Xmas when he was called to the zoo to help a giraffe give birth. We were at his house, so we accompanied him, and witnessed a holiday miracle.

When he wasn’t at the zoo, Grandpa was in places like Africa, Ecuador and Australia, studying wildlife. He especially loved birds, which I found interesting because he was color-blind.

As fascinating as Grandpa was, this story isn’t about him. It’s about Jean. My grandparents divorced when their 4 kids were still growing up. Grandpa met his soul-mate, Jean, late in life. They only had a few years together before Grandpa was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. He died within months. The zoo became the Fresno Chaffee Zoo. Grandpa, who had been robust earlier that year, barely had the strength to attend the dedication ceremony in a wheelchair.

For the past 31 years, Jean has kept Grandpa’s spirit alive. She published 5 children’s books about “Doc” Chaffee. Jon and our kids never met him, but they feel like they know him. He is part of their lives. Once after our family visited the zoo, I told Jon that I felt like I’d been with him. His spirit permeates the entire place! I shared with a young woman working in the gift shop that Doc was my Grandpa. Her eyes lit up and she broke into a smile. Decades after his crossing, he was part of her life.

Jon and I took the kids to an Earth Day festival here in LA a few years ago. Hundreds of people were there. We passed one of dozens of stands and spotted someone selling Jean’s children’s books. His name was Gary. He was featured in the book about Azak, the ape that leaned sign language. Gary spoke effusively of Grandpa, and the impact he’d had on his life. Here we were, hours away from Fresno, decades after my Grandpa crossed, attending a packed event in the nation’s second largest city, and Grandpa’s spirit still shone .

Jean is currently writing a book about the history of the Zoo. She gives generously to the Zoo, proudly leading tours and sharing Grandpa’s story. She and my wonderful aunt, Denise, set up a Molly Steinsapir scholarship, which is paying for over 50 local kids from underserved areas to attend Zoo camp this summer. We could not be more proud.

Jean keeps Grandpa’s spirit vibrant and impactful. We will do the same for Molly. They both crossed too soon (Grandpa crossed the day before Molly’s birthday), but their special souls will never stop doing good in the world.

Thank you, Jean. We love you.

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