Dee White and Benson Pion

On a recent October morning, Dee White piled into her car with a Masai warrior and took off for the beach.

“It struck me, here was a 70-year-old woman driving across the country with a 28-year-old kid so he could see the ocean. And he loved it! LOVED it – totally blown away. I had him taste it, and the look on his face was just priceless.”

There was a problem that White hadn’t counted on, though. She’d already taken Benson Pion to Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, where he’d gotten his first look ever at marine critters great and small. It was great fun, but the sight of all these exotic and somewhat scary inhabitants of the deep stayed with Benson when he got his first look at the Atlantic.

“The Masai are not big fans of water, because there are crocodiles and hippos that want to kill you and eat you, so he was very hesitant to put his feet in the water – he just knew there would be sharks coming up to grab him,” White said.

So, what is a retired medical social worker doing traipsing around the Southeastern USA with a Masai warrior?

Appropriately enough, it’s a long story. It goes back to the late ’60s when White was working at the St. Louis Zoological Park as a supervisor in the nursery and got to know Kay Holekamp, a teenaged volunteer. White and Holekamp became good friends (Holekamp was very smart and talented), but lost touch when White returned to Knoxville to finish college and Holekamp pursued her own education. Fast forwarding 40 years, White was getting ready to attend a reunion of zoo colleagues and decided she’d try to find Holekamp. Turns out that wasn’t hard to do.

“I googled her name and BAM! All this stuff comes up. Turns out, she’s the Jane Goodall of hyenas. I contacted her and asked, ‘Are you the same Kay Holekamp who worked at the St. Louis Zoo in the ’60s? This is Dee White looking for an old friend.’”

Holekamp, a zoologist at Michigan State University, has a longstanding and very famous hyena research project in the Masai Mara Reserve in Kenya (Example here). She remembered White’s dream of going to Africa and extended the invitation.

White, who had been in charge of the newborn screening program for the eastern third of the state at the UT Medical Center’s Graduate School of Medicine before she retired, was ready for an adventure.

“I burst into tears, went to the bank and took out my life’s savings and went to Africa.”

She now works for Holekamp, and generally goes to Kenya in the summer for three months at a time. Last year she also spent January and February there, deploying some new tracking collars.

Benson Pion explores the aquarium in Gatlinburg.

And that’s how she got to know Benson, who came to work at the hyena project as a cook’s helper. He is very bright and worked his way into a skilled position as a research assistant. He’s spending a little more than a month in America, mostly in Lansing, Michigan, home of MSU and the Hyena Project. White packed a lot of sightseeing into his week here and drove him to Lansing when it was over.

She said he’s had a wonderful, eye-opening time, but will be ready to go home when his time here is up; and she will be ready to go back and see him in Kenya come next June, although she doesn’t know how long she can keep it up.

“It’s getting harder every year,” she said. “The work is hard and I have to be able to carry my own weight. I’d gotten a passport when I turned 60, thinking I was 60 years old and I didn’t want to go out without going somewhere. This coming year will be my 11th trip.”

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Written by Betty Bean