Remembering Walter Scott, Jr.
On September 25, 2021, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium lost its greatest champion. There simply are no words that can do justice to our feelings about Walter Scott, Jr. Of all the leaders, donors and visionaries who have made our Zoo what it is today, Walter stands out even among that illustrious group.
Walter’s passing gives us the opportunity to celebrate his life, to reflect on his many and profound contributions to the Zoo and honor his unparalleled dedication to building a zoo of this quality. But his passing also confers upon us a great responsibility — to live up to his legacy and carry it on, which was one of Walter’s great hopes.
It’s difficult to know where to begin in honoring Walter. During the fifteen short years that I had the pleasure of working with him, he shared many stories about his commitment to building a world-class zoo, a passion he devoted so much of his time and financial resources to. Time spent with him was invaluable to me, as I learned the meaning of leadership and the importance of civic engagement from a person that took those roles, and the responsibility that comes with them very seriously. But most importantly, I learned the depth of love Walter had for the individual, and to cultivating their potential.
For some historical context, Walter took his first steps into his significant leadership role at the Zoo in 1975. This was the year he joined the board of the Omaha Zoological Society, and when he made his first major financial contribution to the Zoo — for the Cat Complex, which became the largest facility of its kind in North America.
He then became the Chairman of the Zoo in 1982, and two years later, created the Omaha Zoo Foundation, one of the first organizations of its kind, and charged it with building a robust philanthropic program comprised of engaged donors focused on ensuring the Zoo remains an unparalleled asset for the entire region.
In the years that followed, Walter ensured that Lee “Doc” Simmons could pursue his grand plans for the Zoo, including his focus on animal care and global conservation. In the same way, Walter supported Dennis Pate in his expansive vision for the Zoo’s world-class immersive exhibits.
Balanced with these big initiatives were the smaller, more relatable moments, such as the time Walter literally auctioned “the shirt off his back” to his friend Warren Buffett, at one of the first Zoofari fundraisers. And the frequent golf cart tours through the Zoo, intended to be enjoyable drives through the park, but turning quickly to new project ideas and strategies to make them a reality.
Walter’s personality, passion and big-picture thinking are built into the very bricks and stone of the Zoo — and rooted as deep as the trees that have shaded our park for generations. You can see his influence everywhere, from the Scott Aquarium and African Grasslands to every major project that has taken place over the last forty years.
He shared his business and financial know-how so that we could create something unique, beautiful and edifying for his beloved hometown of Omaha. It’s no surprise that the education of young people was so important to his vision for the Zoo. He wanted nothing more than to pass on the love of wildlife and nature to the next generation.
As I stated at the opening of my letter, there truly are no words that can even begin to do justice to Walter’s profound contributions to our Zoo. The rest, really, is up to all of us, to carry on what Walter shepherded through so many years of work and passion. Work we are humbled to do, and truly grateful for the opportunity to do so. He will be dearly missed.