Four Summers at FONZ

How a junior Zoo aide's experiences decades ago lasted a lifetime

April 6, 2021

old sign about smokey bear When he was a teenager, Stephen Jacobs spent some summers volunteering for FONZ. As a as a junior Zoo aide he met one of his best friends; was inspired to learn American Sign Language; and wrote a few FONZ newsletters, which led to a future of freelance writing gigs. Below is his FONZ memory.

In the latter half of the 1970s, from when I was 14 to 17, I spent my summers as a junior Zoo aide as part of FONZ.

Those four summers influenced the adult I became in ways no one could have predicted.

For the first two years we stood in front of the Elephant House, the tortoise enclosure in front of the Reptile House, and other select sites with a portable sign. We memorized speeches and gained the ability to answer visitor questions about specific animals.

After two years we realized we weren't a successful outreach effort, because a high percentage of parents didn't want to ask a kid a question in front of their own kids. So we flipped the program and reached out to the D.C. area’s leading puppeteer of the time, Bob Brown, who trained us as puppeteers. We were doing shows that taught Zoo visitor etiquette to the kids, in the hopes that their parents would be listening too.

Fellow Junior Zoo aide Phil Garfinkel and I are still the best of friends after having met our first summers in the program. His elephantine memory, always better than mine, allows him to cite verbatim the speech about the history of the Elephant House.

I had my first experiences interacting with deaf visitors at the Zoo and failed miserably to communicate in any other way than pen and pencil. In high school I attempted, and in college I succeeded, in taking courses in ASL, becoming trained as an interpreter, working my way through college interpreting for New York City schools, doing my junior year "abroad" for my second language back home in D.C. as a hearing exchange student at Gallaudet (where I met my wife), interpreting for Paramount in Canada for four months during the filming of Children of a Lesser God, and finally getting my first college teaching gigs as an adjunct for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf before moving to a tenured position in Interactive Media and Games in RIT's College of Computing.

I also wrote a couple of articles for the FONZ newsletter, kicking off decades of freelance writing for technology and entertainment magazines, including the Washington Post and Wired.

My time at the Zoo, coupled with another part-time job at the Capital Children's led to years of involvement as a subject matter expert, exhibit, and/or game designer with various institutions. That includes my current position, for 12 years running, at The Strong National Museum of Play.

While I no longer have copies of any of the articles that I wrote for FONZ's newsletter, I still have two "certificates of achievement" from the program and a clipping from the Post written by Judith Martin about the day we all opened the polar bear exhibit by taking a dip in it. My "Be a Modern Day Noah" poster did not survive my nomadic ways. The "Which Bear is Smokey?"" sign I liberated (with FONZ permission) from the demolition pile still sits in my office.