- Journal of SD History
Belle Jennings Benchley (1882-1973)
Belle Jennings came to San Diego from Larned, Kansas, with her family as a girl of five in 1887. She attended a one-room grammar school in Roseville, on Point Loma (held in her father's home), later went to Russ High School (now San Diego High), and graduated from San Diego Normal School (now San Diego State University). In 1906, she married William L. Benchley in San Diego.
After graduation, Mrs. Benchley taught school for nearly four years, served two consecutive terms as School Trustee in Fullerton, Orange County. In 1925 she was hired by the San Diego Zoological Garden as its bookkeeper. Two years later she was promoted to executive secretary, what was then the top staff position. Later the title was changed to director, which post she held until her retirement. She was the only woman director of a zoo in the world, and held the most important post for a woman in San Diego County.
She wrote books called "My Animal Babies" and "My Life in a Man-Made Jungle." During the years of her leadership at the Zoo, annual attendance grew by 4 1/2 times and its budget by more than 7 times.
The San Diego Zoo had become -- and remains -- one of the greatest tourist attractions in all the world.
When Benchley retired in 1953, Mayor Knox of San Diego proclaimed "Belle Benchley Day." A civic dinner In her honor was held and attended by 800 people. Her going-away present was a trip around the world. The presentor read a hilarious poem, including the words:
And when you sail upon the Nile,
The hippo and the crocodile
Had better climb a tree;
Or shipped aboard a modern ark
They'll land in this Balboa Park
For all our kids to see.