If you work in National Parks long enough, a consistent theme emerges: the idea that no one person is responsible for any success. This belief, promoted with good reason, proves repeatedly to be true as these lands require all of us to protect and conserve them. And while Zion is no exception to this rule, if there were a single person that embodied all of the love, affection, and care for the park and its people, it was Sunny Lee. Sunny Lee’s recent and unexpected passing is a deep loss for the Zion community, and her legacy of service will not be forgotten. Her memory remains preserved forever inside the towering sandstone walls of Zion National Park.
Sunny was a resident of Utah for more than two decades living with her husband John in Springdale just minutes from the park gates. Sunny’s passions extended far beyond Zion and much has already been written about her diplomatic work to build bridges between the U.S. and her homeland of South Korea. Sunny will be long-remembered by many Korean War veterans and their families, whom she sought to honor for their military service. Despite the seemingly full-time job of advocating for the recognition of those who fought in the “Forgotten War,” Sunny made time to be one of Zion’s preeminent volunteers caring not just for the park but for the people that worked within it.
“She was only on the calendar to volunteer one day a week,” remembers park Volunteer Program Manager, Eleanor Siebers. Even though the official log showed her in-park for just one day, you couldn’t travel far in Zion without seeing Sunny somewhere in the canyon. Her official post was usually behind the information desk of the park museum greeting visitors and providing information, but that didn’t keep her from finding other ways to help.
When Sunny wasn’t behind the desk, she was roaming the park looking for ways to help, doing simple things like picking up trash, or something less visible like volunteering to watch the infants and children at the park staff daycare long after her “official” shift had ended.
Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh recalls that Sunny’s real worth showed in times of crisis:
“Her name, in many ways, says it all. Sunny brought sunshine to all of us! Her caring, compassion and friendliness touched many people among the park staff, visitors, and community. I remember the tragedy of the seven fatalities from the flash flood through Keyhole Canyon, and when we were all reeling in this disaster, Sunny was there to help, offering to arrange hotels and meals for the victims’ families, allowing us to focus on the operational aspects, keeping families informed, and dealing with the national press coverage. I was so relieved when Sunny came to me and said, ‘Leave it to me!’ She was always there for whomever needed help.”
Zion National Park was not the only direct benefactor of Sunny Lee’s efforts. For more than a decade, Sunny supported the work of the Zion Forever Project in both official and unofficial capacities.
Even though they were closer in age, Zion Forever’s Publishing Manager Tammy Eberhard remembered Sunny as someone to look up to. “I tell people that I want to be like Sunny when I grow up. She was so open, so easy to talk to, and she really cared. We spent most of our time bonding while cooking food for others. She became such a dear friend. We are really going to miss her.”
“I mean she was cutting rangers’ hair, for free, in her barn after work… who does that?” gushed long- time Zion Forever associate Toni Tracy. Toni remembered that even when Sunny was battling her own illnesses, she was still only concerned about the staff in Zion. “Her barn was like a gathering house, it was a place for anyone that didn’t have somewhere else to go. She cooked Thanksgiving for staff, had season opening get-togethers and really kept everyone connected.”
The Forever Project’s Executive Director, Lyman Hafen, was able to connect with Sunny in a very personal way: “I had the opportunity to travel with Sunny twice. The first was several years ago with my father who is a Korean War veteran.
It was a life-affirming experience for my Dad, not only to go back, but to get to know Sunny and to bask in the light of her sincere love and compassion for war veterans. Last year I got to go again and take my wife Debbie, who had known Sunny only by reputation, but who got to know her personally on this trip. And for both of us, having known Sunny Lee is one of the greatest treasures of our lives.”
As we pass slowly from summer into fall, Zion is debuting this season’s art event, and although this year’s show is digital, Lyman reminds us that Sunny played a critical role each season in making that event a success. “Among the many things she was known for was the ‘Artists’ Dinner’ that she hosted at her legendary barn in Springdale in early November each year. The invited artists to our annual Plein Air art event were treated to her sumptuous cooking, the friendly confines of her barn, and the warm hospitality of both Sunny and her dear husband John. She had a gift for making it unique and personal each year, and all of us who were privileged to be there, including many of the best landscape artists in America, will never forget those evenings.”
With Sunny always playing caretaker, it was easy to think of her as a maternal figure, but for Eleanor that description does not do it justice. “Yeah, a lot of people call her the park Mom, and that’s sweet and true, but it really was so much more than that, she was the glue that held this whole park family together.” Eleanor beautifully summarized Sunny’s legacy at Zion:
If you’ve ever walked into a park building on a holiday weekend and seen an insane amount of delicious fried rice or hot dogs or tacos or chili with all the fixings, you’ve experienced the generosity of Sunny.
If you’ve ever been far from family but spent Thanksgiving in a barn surrounded by other park “orphans” and really good food, you’ve experienced the kindness of Sunny.
If you’ve ever marveled at the cleanliness of the park, you’ve experienced Sunny’s stewardship.
If you’ve ever watched with glee as she deftly handled seven tour buses in the Museum parking lot, you’ve experienced the awesomeness of Sunny.
If you’ve ever wondered where to host your Bighorn sheep meeting in town and found your answer, you’ve experienced Sunny’s ability to bring the community together.
If you’ve ever ventured into the break room and found a heaping crate of California organic oranges with a note insuring you they don’t have COVID because she talked to the Health Department not once but twice, you’ve experienced the consideration of Sunny.
If you’ve ever pulled up to the park’s daycare at the end of the day and found Sunny out on the lawn holding your 4-month old because she just wants to help, you’ve experienced the love of Sunny.
Ruth Parker, a park volunteer and good friend of Sunny, had this to say: “She loved the park staff and appreciated all the hard work you all do for a place she loved.”
We are better as a park for having had Sunny as a volunteer and, more importantly, as a friend.
She will be greatly, greatly missed.
Sunny’s life is a powerful example of the lasting impact of the Zion Forever extended family in Zion National Park. Several supporters have already stepped forward to make a gift “In Remembrance of Sunny Lee” to a place where she dedicated a portion of her life’s work. To honor the life of Sunny Lee, or a loved one close to you, click this link to make a gift In Memoriam.