By Vicki Croke
This week marks an important anniversary for me: Twenty-five years ago, I met my hero, the legendary chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall.
The day I met Jane I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even look into the camera. Photo: Mario Suriani
To the world, Goodall gained her first measure of fame in 1960 by changing the definition of man with her discovery that not just humans, but chimpanzees too, fashion and use tools.
But for me, and countless other girls, she also profoundly changed the definition of “woman.” She showed the world that going to Africa and studying animals wasn’t just for boys. She had made a life among the wild chimpanzees of Gombe in Tanzania, and lots of us wanted to be just like her.
Even before I could fully comprehend its significance, I pored over the details of Jane’s work: How she negotiated the dark predawn jungles to get close to the elusive chimps. The way she jotted down observations that at first seemed mundane but often blossomed into revelations. How she and her mother set up camp in a clearing along Lake Tanganyika. But mostly what enchanted me were the stories of the chimps themselves, which in Goodall’s telling became a complex unfolding drama.
My own dreams of being a field biologist were derailed by a protracted illness as a teenager, but even after becoming a journalist, I read every book Jane Goodall wrote. I watched each National Geographic documentary, and memorized the faces of her Gombe chimps. They became as familiar as my own family—the wise matriarch Flo, with her ragged, torn ears; handsome David Greybeard; petulant, heart-on-his-sleeve Flint, who appeared to perish from grief when his mother died; Gigi, the girl with lots of sex appeal and no offspring; and the small but clever Mike, who became an alpha chimp when he learned to scare the bigger males by loudly crashing empty kerosene tins together.
Part of my soul lived in a tent in Gombe.
Then, in March of 1989, while working for The Boston Globe, I experienced what felt like a miracle—an invitation to interview Jane in New York City. I had never in my working life felt the jagged anticipation that assignment provoked, and I never have since.
The day of the interview, I was brought to a meeting room in the UN Plaza Hotel where Jane was waiting.
She was dressed in green and wore a gold medallion necklace, her graying hair was pulled back, and she was surrounded by a few staffers from the Jane Goodall Institute. We shook hands, sat down, and I turned on my new tape recorder, praying it was actually working.
I started by asking her about her life. She responded with short replies.
When I inquired about whether she felt she had missed out on pop culture over the years—the Beatles, for instance, or the hippie movement—she laughed with real surprise and said, “Oh no!” In order to prod her into fuller answers I employed an old newspaper technique: I sat looking at her when she finished a statement. Normally, people nervously fill in the awkward silence by expanding their answers. But this was Jane Goodall, for crying out loud. She had spent a lifetime quietly observing primates. She was happy to watch me without speaking.
The first page of the newsy letter I received from Jane in 1996. I was charmed that she even scribbled up the margins.
We talked about the chimps, her discoveries, and heartbreaking times, like the polio epidemic among the animals. She was so kind and serene that I would write, “An afternoon with Jane Goodall is like a walk with Gandhi.”
When we finished the interview, I clicked off the recorder, and, amazingly, Jane asked me to stay.
I followed her and her colleagues up to her room, and she took out a stack of unmarked photos of the chimps. The first was of a female with a particularly long face, I recognized her immediately. Almost reflexively I said: “Oh, Gilka! Poor Gilka. Such a sad life. I’m always amazed by how much she looks like her mother Olly.” I’ll never forget that moment. Jane looked into my eyes for a long minute and smiled. We were friends.
Over the years we’ve met several times and corresponded. She kindly blurbed a book I wrote on zoos. On one magical evening, at the home of Roger Caras, then the animal specialist for ABC News, we three sipped Jameson Irish whiskey together. I remember Jane sitting cross-legged on the carpeted floor, she was upset, and telling Roger we simply had to figure out a way to help chimps held in American laboratories.
Even so, I never assume Jane will recognize me, especially because she has prosopagnosia, trouble recalling human faces. Yet she has always turned to me at some point in the conversation, saying, “I KNOW you” – and it thrills me every time.
At the Franklin Park Zoo here in Boston, a few years ago, she even “groomed” me the way a chimp would, delicately pulling a few strands of hair away from eyes, to the delight of the crowd we were standing with.
Whenever I’m graced with another moment in the presence of Jane Goodall, I remember the story she told when we first met, and which I reported in the Globe so long ago:
“The most touching thing that ever happened to me was at a lecture I gave in Philadelphia,” Jane said. “A little old lady was brought up afterward—I don’t know how old she was … and she had every bone in her body totally deformed, I mean the most misshapen body I think I’ve ever seen, and she had these beautiful, luminous eyes in this strange-shaped face … and she said, ‘I just want to thank you for living my life for me.’ ”
I know how that woman felt. I think a lot of us do.