Being in charge of the Discovery Room at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Thea Haugen has organized her share of parties for children’s birthdays. But Saturday morning’s party was all about her.

More than 50 people crowded into the museum’s meeting room to wish Haugen well on retirement after 20 years with the museum. While her main job has been animal caretaker, she has also created programming for the museum and assisted in just about everything there is to do at the museum, co-workers and volunteers said.

That’s part of the nature of the staff, Museum Director Reese Barrick said, but Haugen has had a special role.

“The museum is a pretty small group of people. While we all have a title to our jobs, everybody has to do a little bit of everything, which means everybody has to work with everybody else all the time,” he said.

“We developed a real bond working together,” he said.

In fact, while addressing the crowd during the celebration, he referred to the staff as Haugen’s “extended family.”

Haugen has been the person tying that family together, Barrick said. The educational programming is directed at a variety of ages of children and includes all areas of the museum. Plus, Haugen has had the most volunteers, he said.

“She dealt with the public on a lot of different levels. She was really kind of the heart and center for dealing with all our audience. In doing that, she had to be tied into all of us,” he said.

“She sort of tied everybody together pretty tightly.”

Haugen began volunteering with the museum while the facility was being constructed in a former health club in the late 1990s. She was always one to take care of animals, she said, so as part of the promotion of the museum’s relocating from campus, she would take snakes and other animals to events around the area.

The museum then opened a full-time position for animal caretaker.

“I tried for the job. Nobody else really had the experience. Here it is, 20 years later,” Hagen said, while Merten, an Australian water monitor, climbed over her head and around her shoulders.

Haugen mingled in Saturday’s crowd with either Merten or Buddy, a Great Plains rat snake that’s also been at the museum since its opening, draped over her shoulders.

There were plenty of hugs and jokes with former co-workers and volunteers. Many of the volunteers started working with Haugen in grade school and are now studying or working on their own careers. Many of them credited her with the direction their lives have taken.

Jacob Alexander first volunteered with her when he was 9. Eleven years later, he still returns to help when he’s not doing field work or studying at FHSU for a degree in conservation biology.

“If I wouldn’t have been here at the museum, I don’t think I would have been as successful in my career as I have been,” he said.

After he graduates in 2021, he wants to continue fieldwork or work with the public.

“That’s been a big part of what Thea’s instilled in me is the communication of all these issues and getting people involved with conservation efforts and just knowing more about things,” he said.

Jackson Stanton started attending the museum’s educational programming and then became a volunteer when he was 12. When someone brought a boa constrictor they found to the Haugen, he ended up taking it home as a pet. Now he plans to study biology and combine it with his love of media and possibly make nature documentaries, he said.

Reece and Channing Leiker, 14 and 10, would come to the museum after school when their dad, James, was education director from 2011 to 2013.

“After school at 3 o’clock, we’d get picked up and I’d want to go right to Thea’s and hang out with the animals and hold some of the snakes,” Reece said.

She even had Haugen bring a snake to show and tell at school once.

“It kind of sparked something in my friends, and one them actually ended up getting a pet snake because Thea got her comfortable with it,” she said.

James Leiker said Haugen was one of the most reliable and hardest working people he’s ever worked with. The two of them worked together to establish the Howard Reynolds Nature Trail and begin its educational programs such as campfires, sleepovers and flashlight tours.

“She used to prep some of the stuff when I had to go out of town for programs. I’d show up early in the morning, she’d already have it packed up and ready to go. She knew what I was taking before I even knew what I was taking,” he said.

Haugen’s assistant for the last year, Alicia Gaede, joked that Haugen knows the building so well, she can walk through the entire museum without once appearing on security cameras.

Education Manager Ian Trevethan spoke to the crowd about Haugen’s dependability.

“When I arrived here it was in a swirl of chaos and has continued to be for the last nine years,” he said.

“Literally from the second I hit the ground here, Thea has kept me grounded,” he said, his voice choking off in emotion.

“It’s going to be a hard couple of weeks for me here,” he said.

Barrick said the university has just completed interviews to fill Haugen’s job. Finding the right person won’t be an easy task, he said, even though the university’s biology department and those who worked with Haugen brought good candidates.

“It’s impossible to replace her. But what we can do is get somebody who can still do the job and maybe take it in a slightly different direction,” he said.

“More important than anything else is the fit, personality wise. That’s the part we’re really trying to replace is somebody else who can really fit the dynamic of the people here,” he said.

Although she’s retiring, Haugen has no plans to leave the museum behind. She plans to “come back and play” as a volunteer.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun. I won’t have to go to meetings or do paperwork,” she said.

“I don’t want to leave, but it’s getting harder,” she said of the physical demands of caring for the animals.

“It has been fantastic. I’d like to say I would have done this job for free. For me I probably had the best job in the world,” she said.