Bessie Heard’s fervor for life never waned, and at an age when most people are winding down, she embarked on her life’s biggest challenge: creating the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary.

At nearly 80 years old, Bessie Heard noticed a trend in 1960s Dallas. Because of an influx of businesses and people, shopping centers and houses sprung up quicker than weeds and natural habitats slowly relented to the bulldozer.

While developers saw dollar signs, Heard worried that concrete would eventually dominate the horizon. A lifelong conservationist, Heard saw an opportunity to preserve some of the local environment so “…children of the future will have a place to look at birds, bugs and wildflowers in their natural place.”

It was not the first time she viewed the world in a different light. In fact, she had done so her entire life.

Carving Her Own Path

Forty-five years after successfully opening the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary on Oct. 1, 1967, it is still evident that Bessie Heard’s life was anything but ordinary. Her interests were so varied that she may have been one of the most interesting women in the world.

She lived her life to the fullest, leaving little on her bucket list: One summer, long before the interstate highway system, Heard and a friend packed a car and navigated their way to Florida and back entirely on dirt roads. She explored much of the Canadian wilderness on horseback, refusing to ride side saddle as a “proper lady” should. She backpacked through Europe and founded the McKinney Red Cross Chapter during World I. She enjoyed woodworking, owned her own tools, hosted carpentry classes for neighborhood children, and sponsored a birdhouse building contest in 1916 to showcase students’ skills. Heard never married, and when questioned why, she suggested it was due to her being “far too picky and not fetching enough.”

Near the turn of the 19th century, this young McKinney woman was making good on her vision of what her life should be. Always different, she engaged in activities – such as riding a bike in Chilan era when women didn’t do such “undignified” things, and graduating from Mary Baldwin College in Virginia – that foreshadowed a progressive life.

She went to New York City, and attended the renowned Parsons School of Design. She completed her studies in interior design, and after starting a successful career, returned to McKinney to tend to her ill father until his death. She would never leave.

By today’s standards, just a few of Heard’s undertakings might deem her a feminist. However, she was simply being herself, leading an active life of humility without concern for accolades or recognition.Later in life, as Heard recounted a childhood violin recital, her humbleness and humor were evident as she described the performance “…sufficient to convince my teacher not to waste any more time on me.”

Her ability to not take herself too seriously, along with many other attributes, made her well-suited to undertake her biggest challenge.

Dream Becomes a Reality

Even for Heard, the idea of creating a museum and wildlife sanctuary in her 80th year was daunting. It just made sense, however. A “born pack-rat,” her house overflowed – and a museum seemed the logical destination for her collections.Her appreciation of nature, including memories that included hours “up in trees, just reading” spurred her on.

She also felt strongly that a natural museum for children would be a fitting tribute to her parents, John and Rachel Heard, both of whom fostered her appreciation of art and nature.When the challenging and even mundane tasks of realizing her dream became difficult, friends offered a hand and encouragement. “If you build this museum, you will live to be 100 years old,” one friend said. And so she did.

A Milestone Anniversary

This October marks the 45th anniversary of the 289-acre Heard Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary, which still proudly carries out its mission of protecting natural habitats for all generations.

In 2011, more than 90,000 visitors enjoyed guided nature trails, educational classes, summer camps, art exhibits, reptiles and more. A recently added ropes course has provided a treetop challenge for the young and young at heart.

As part of fall festivities, Halloween at the Heard is set for Oct. 20.Kids will trick-or-treat alongside the Life-sized creations of "Animatronic Dinosaurs Live!" They can also enjoy a movie in the amphitheater and stroll through the “Haunted Forest” along the Hoot Owl Trail (4), Bessie Heard’s personal favorite.
Children 12 and younger may take part in a costume contest, and other fun activities are planned as well. Heard Museum officials encourage the public to purchase tickets early because the event sells out each year.

Prior to her death in 1988, Heard was asked if she thought she would Be remembered for contributions to McKinney. She responded in typical fashion: “I don’t really know. When you’re gone, you’re gone, but we made an outstanding little museum.”

So when you visit the Heard Museum this fall to enjoy the Hoot Owl trails Haunted Forest, you might glance into the treetops and imagine a young Bessie Heard perched high on a branch, book in hand, smiling down in approval.

For more information, go online to heardmuseum.org for details on activities and volunteer opportunities.

 

About the author: Scott Trapp is a teacher and freelance writer who lives in McKinney with his two daughters.