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Zoo Man Charlie Hoessle Gets His Own Children’s Book

Don Corrigan will join Diane Key-Biggs and Shelley Dietrichs, the creators of A Friend to All: Charlie Hoessle, at a special book event at the Novel Neighbor in Webster Groves on Monday, Dec. 6, from 7-8 p.m. The event will include presentations on favorite animals and favorite animal lovers in St. Louis and book signings.

A Friend to All: Charlie Hoessle is a children’s book that takes a look at the life and times of the beloved former Saint Louis Zoo Director. Corrigan will give a presentation on his new book, American Roadkill: The Animal Victims of Our Busy Highways. Corrigan will give an up-beat update on all the animal lovers and groups who are working to reduce roadkill carnage on the nation’s thoroughfares. There is much progress to report!

By Don Corrigan

A familiar image of the Saint Louis Zoo’s Charlie Hoessle graces the cover of a new children’ book. Its title notes that he is a friend “to all.” The “all” includes giraffes, lions, penguins, snakes, elephants and more.

That’s as it should be, according to Shrewsbury writer Diane Key-Biggs and Kirkwood illustrator Shelley Dietrichs. Hoessle’s best friends have always been furry, scaly, hairy or even a bit slimy.

The story book notes that from an early age, Charlie cultivated the kind of friends that you can keep in your pocket, like a toad, turtle, or frog. He found it hard to make friends at school, but not in the great outdoors.

“Charlie never had trouble making friends with the animals. He loved them from an early age,” said Key-Biggs. “I think young readers will find that reassuring.

“Here is a man who never had to worry about being lonely,” said Key-Biggs. “With his love for animals, he has been a real gift for St. Louis. They broke the mold when they made Charlie.”

Nothing is broken about the design of the book on Hoessle. Key-Biggs uses questions that a little boy might ask his mother – questions that begin when the youngster discovers the bronze sculpture of Charlie Hoessle outside the herpetarium at the Saint Louis Zoo.

“Is that a statue of your friend, Mommy?” the youngster named, Calvin, asks his mother.

The dialogue that follows is based on real life, and is inspired by questions that Key-Biggs’ own son has asked her about the world-famous zoo director.

Key-Biggs explains that, yes, Charlie is her friend. When she worked at the Saint Louis Art Museum, she went to the zoo at lunch break. Charlie was driving the zoo grounds every day in his golf cart and would say, “hello.”

“My son inspired me with questions,” said Key-Biggs. “He would ask: Why does Charlie have a snake around his neck? Has he always worked at the zoo? Does he keep snakes at his home?”

The book explains that Charlie was befriending snakes and scorpions when he was with the U.S. Army in Texas. He has kept animals in his home, wherever he has lived. His wife and kids are kind of OK with that.

Richly-Illustrated Text

The book is illustrated by Shelley Dieterichs of Kirkwood, who created images of many different snakes, not just one generic snake as found in most children’s books.

The snakes range from the garden variety to pythons and boa constrictors. And there is that huge, life-sized statue of Charlie draped with a very long boa constrictor. Eat your heart out, Britney Spears.

The book itself was a surprise gift for Hoessle at his 90th birthday party at The Annex in Webster Groves. A Sunset Hills resident, Hoessle spends many mornings in Webster Groves bouncing around different coffee shops to chat and laugh with friends.

His family conspired with Key-Biggs and Dieterichs on the book. Hoessle and his wife, Marilyn, have two sons and two daughters. Daughter, Marty, supplied family photos, unbeknownst to Charlie, to help Dieterichs create images for the book.

Dieterichs has been a freelance designer and illustrator for 39 years. She specializes in children’s books and educational materials. Her Garden Alphabet was licensed for embroidery designs.

Key-Biggs has a Master of Arts and Education in Multiple Discipline Studies from Webster University. She has worked at the art museum, the zoo and at the Gateway Arch as a seasonal park guide.

Both of the book co-conspirators are into children’s education. Key-Biggs has a Washington University Graduate Certificate in science education as well as a Missouri Elementary School Teaching Certificate.

The Hoessle Surprise

Now squeaking past his octogenarian years, Charlie Hoessle is not surprised by much anymore. However, his birthday party and book gift took him totally off guard.

“I could not ask for more talented book creators,” said Hoessle. “Shelly is a great illustrator, and I’ve received many comments from friends on her work. Diane did a lot of research, and her years of zoo experience helped.”

Hoessle can attest to the truth of the text and images in the book, which may be a little unsettling for those having few close acquaintances in the animal kingdom.

“I served two years in the Army at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas,” noted Hoessle. “I collected the five species of rattlesnakes in the area, and kept them in an outdoor shed.

“We lived on post, in a small trailer. A cold front came through and I snuck the snakes into the trailer and hid them under the bed,” he explained. “After midnight, the wind shook the trailer, and the snakes rattled in concern.

“This woke my wife, who made me take them out, so I hid them in the community-heated bathhouse,” recalled Hoessle. “The next day, I had to get a pass from my commanding officer to take the snakes to the nearest zoo.”

There is a big upside to this story. The local zoo traded the rattlers for a large snake that became Hoessle’s first pet boa constrictor. The rattler incident also resulted in his giving lectures on post on snake bite prevention for officers and troops going overseas.

In civilian life, Hoessle’s animal lecture abilities came to the attention of Director Marlin Perkins at the Saint Louis Zoo. He was hired at the zoo, where he rose from snake man, to zoo director, to director emeritus with his own statue for posterity.

Hoessle said he enjoys everything about St. Louis with so many institutions – like the zoo – designed to inspire animal lovers of all ages. He also likes those Webster Groves coffee shops.

“I started swimming at Webster Y in the early 1970s, before going to the zoo,” said Hoessle. “I stopped for coffee on the way with a group of retired ‘old guys.’

“The old guys died off, so we made a co-ed group. I’ve visited every Webster coffee shop,” declared Hoessle. “The coffee group has grown. They threw me the surprise birthday party. What a nice surprise!”

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