Some pillars of the community carve out their turf early on and build their power base from there. Others prefer to take on a role as needed, and then jump in to fill a critical vacuum somewhere else. Katherine Loo is among the latter.
“I’ve been active in civics all my life,” she says. “I got my start when I was in high school, volunteering for (Dwight D. “Ike”) Eisenhower’s campaign. Why, Ike was an old friend of the family.”
With a family connection like that, it’s no wonder Loo thought politics was a pretty exciting path to community activism.
She grew up in Billings, Mont., daughter of an oil man. She had an ear for music, and was good enough on French horn to perform with the Billings Symphony Orchestra. She went to the University of Kansas, studied political science and served as president of her sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma.
“I had a lot of strong women in my family who served as role models for me,” she says. “It never occurred to me that I might not be able to do something I set out to do.”
She met Dusty Loo, a Colorado Springs native, at the University of Kansas, married him, and went with him to his hometown. She started a family, but immediately dove in to community service: president of the local Kappa alum chapter; Head Start; the Brockhurst Boys Ranch; and president of the Junior League.
All that was preparation for the larger role Loo would play here at Colorado Springs’ zoo. “The best experience of all for me really was the zoo,” she says. “It was rewarding and fun.”
At first, though, it was tough work. The zoo faced a serious deficit. Using her connection through the Junior League, Loo became a board member. A new director was hired, a turnaround strategy was written. Loo rallied the community around a major fundraising campaign. Not only was the deficit obliterated, but the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo became one of the most talked about zoos in the U.S.
“Today, the zoo serves two purposes,” she says. “It’s the most fun place to be, and it is doing tremendous work in the fields of conservation and education.”
As fulfilling as her role with the zoo proved to be, Loo needed a new challenge once the renovation was done. Always engaged in politics from the sidelines, she became a player in 1979, running successfully for City Council. She left office in 1985, having enjoyed the battles, skirmishes, victories and defeats. But she was ready for another challenge.
Loo and some others decided Colorado Springs needed a real fine arts center. Price tag: $28 million. By 2007, it was mission accomplished. “Some thought we couldn’t do it. But if you can get people to envision the dream, you can accomplish anything.”
These days, the woman who received the 2007 Outstanding Philanthropist Award in Colorado would love to devote more time to her music. “I never got to play enough all those years, although I never stopped,” she says. She’s taking jazz piano lessons at the Academy of Music in her spare time (“I’m getting better”). But don’t be surprised to hear that Kathy Loo’s spearheading the next big capital campaign.
“I’m certainly not going to just sit around and listen to people complain about things,” she says. “That is so boring. I’d rather be doing something to make the community better.”
By Dan Cook