Keven Fay Virgilio
1948 – 2005

The Spirit of the Buffalo website is dedicated to Keven Virgilio, who was the very heart and soul of the project. In November 2003 I received a call from Keven asking me to design a website for the Spirit of the Buffalo. In the weeks that followed, I worked with Keven and her assistant Kristie to put her vision into design. The result was this website, which retains the original design we developed in 2003. We had no idea in those early days how big this project would become, or how many hours we would all dedicate to bring it to completion, or that long after the project ended it would still be going strong.

Sadly, in July 2004 Keven was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and she passed away at the age of 56 after a year long battle. The goal of this page is to paint a picture of the remarkable woman behind the Spirit of the Buffalo project. Below are contributions from people who knew and loved Keven to help paint that picture. Keven, no doubt, left a wonderful imprint on this world...and part of her legacy can be seen in the buffalo.

The herd rides on!

Tammy Pinkston












Photo by Cherie Miller

This is a photo of Keven's beloved Four Canyon Preserve...until Four Canyon, there were no preserves in northwest Oklahoma. Keven worked hard to bring this project into being, and one of the goals of the Spirit of the Buffalo project was to help pay for it. After Keven's death, her husband Ed and their friend Chris Hise, who manages Four Canyon Preserve, found a remote canyon on the 4,000 acres which they call "Keven Canyon". It was just the sort of place Keven loved to be.

Click here for The Nature Conservancy's information sheet for the Preserve...since this was written, the Preserve has grown to 4,000 acres.

Keven was born in Utica, New York and grew up in Oriskany, New York.  At 15 she went to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, as an American Field Service exchange student.  At 16 she moved with her family to Norman, Oklahoma. Her father, Frank, wanted his children to attend Oklahoma University, so he bought a house in Norman, walking distance from the OU campus.  Keven graduated from OU in 1972 with a bachelor of arts in French, and received a master of arts in human relations in 1975.  After college she worked with the Human Rights Commission in Oklahoma City, and from there she got a job at the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, which is how she got involved with nature conservancy.  In 1994 she began working with the Oklahoma Chapter of The Nature Conservancy.  She lived and worked in Boston; Vienna, Virginia; Tulsa; and Tecumseh, Oklahoma before moving back to the family home in Norman with her two sons in 1996.

In 2003 Keven got the idea for Spirit of the Buffalo.  According to her assistant at the time, Kristie Bushman, “The concept of Spirit of the Buffalo was already in the works when I was brought onboard with The Nature Conservancy in August 2003.  In fact, I think I was hired specifically because Keven knew the project would be very demanding and that she would need some office, research, and logistical assistance.  We started by contacting a friend of Keven’s at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Oklahoma City who had tried a year or so earlier to do a Horses on Parade of sorts.  Her project did not do well and Keven wanted to know what she would have done differently to make the project successful. Keven was such a resourceful and thoughtful person, a true professional who covered every base all the time.  Then we got online and on the phone and did research on other ‘parade’ projects across the country from the Cows in Chicago to the Pigs in Seattle.  Two of our Board members at the time went to Ruidoso, New Mexico to see the Parade of Bears first hand and get information.  After doing all the research from who will produce the buffalo forms, to where would they be placed and how would we get sponsor and artist participation, the idea was pitched to The Nature Conservancy management and board members and given the go ahead.  Keven worked miracles with the budget and had such outstanding relationships with both large and small business owners in the community that she was selling buffalo right from day one. Some of the major challenges that existed when I was still with the project were where to store the buffalo while they were waiting to be adopted, how to transport them from storage to artist to final viewing place, and what kind of base to affix them to and how (with minimal manpower and maximum avoidance of injury).  Of course, Keven was able to work all of this out, but it took lots of overtime and devotion. It was just a lot of coordinating and keeping costs as low as possible.  The main thing that really got Spirit of the Buffalo going and kept the momentum rolling was Keven's vision and ability to make the vision into reality.  She based her ‘pitch’ on community pride, which enabled her to get the Centennial Commission, Downtown OKC, and communities across the state of Oklahoma involved.  Keven had lots of help from people like me and many other staff members at The Nature Conservancy, but she really was the heart and soul of the project.  It never would have made if off the ground if she hadn't been the one to take it on.”

Keven's next assistant on the project, Juliette Hulen, has this to add: "The project was very intense and very understaffed.  Keven was the only full time employee on the project, I was part-time, but the demands required that even I worked over 40 hours per week. Her husband, Ed, and my husband, Tinker, were volunteers. Tinker took most of the gallery photos, and a volunteer photographer, Linda Barry, kindly donated photos for the website. Sometimes TNC staffer Chris Hise would step in to help too.  It was a real team effort.  What I remember is how Keven had a real sense of perspective while running such a hectic project. Everyday she brought her homemade lunch in a small woven basket. The meal usually had something from her extensive organic garden at home, and always had a bunch of hand picked flowers from her garden.  At lunch time we would relax despite the chaos around us and enjoy each other's company.  It was a brief respite, but a wonderful one, when we could stop and make each other smile and regain perspective before tackling the tasks that awaited us."   
Keven became more than a boss during this project, she and her husband Ed came to be dear friends of Juliette and her husband, Tinker. Juliette goes on to say, "Keven was unknowingly my mentor during that project.  I watched and learned as she worked with 'big names' of the community, as she presented Spirit of the Buffalo to a City committee, and as she showed equal respect to an unknown artist or volunteer.  Her secret is not really a mystery, but somehow, it is overlooked as a virtue nowadays.  She simply respected everyone equally; she gave each person the dignity they were due, simply because they were human.  And in doing so, Keven was dignified herself."  

Keven’s husband, Ed Hilliard, confirms both the overtime and Keven’s ability to bring people on board with the project.  He says, “Keven was always very popular, and she had a certain charisma that drew people to her, it seemed like she knew everybody at The Nature Conservancy.  She could just call people at big companies and they’d be willing to help.”  Ed also pointed out that Keven had this unique ability to pull together both the banker and the artist; not an easy task, yet this was another one of her gifts.

In the beginning of the project, Ed spent most of his time mapping locations.  He actually studied city planning maps, measured and marked locations for the “buffalo movers” to place the buffalo. Keven was concerned the buffalo would be stolen, so Ed devised a “buffalo security system”, the first (and probably last) of its kind in Oklahoma!  After the buffalo were placed, a cable was secured around the buffalo’s leg and linked through either a nearby pole or a steel stake driven into the ground.  This made the buffalo virtually immovable.  You see the life-size fiberglass buffalo, many of which carried additional weight from their various decorations, were bolted from beneath to a 75 pound metal base.  Add the cable tie and that buffalo was staying put!  I mentioned the buffalo were “virtually” immovable…one buffalo did get kidnapped from Bricktown, but he was returned unharmed a short time later.  No doubt a prank by someone who later realized how difficult it would be to conceal a life-size fiberglass buffalo!  I always thought he just rode around in the back of a pickup truck while his kidnappers tried to figure out what to do with him and finally came to their senses and brought him back!

Besides being head of “buffalo security”, Ed was also in charge of setting the plaques.  Each buffalo had a brass plaque with the sponsor and artist name engraved on it.  After the buffalo movers set out the buffalo, Ed would go around and attach the plaque to the corner of the base.  Ed even worked as a buffalo repairman – for example, The Lineman, OG&E’s buffalo, wore a tool belt and the tools kept mysteriously disappearing from the belt.  After several repairs, Ed literally put a screw through each tool, affixing it to the body of the buffalo. 

Keven worked for The Nature Conservancy for 10 years, and in that time period raised between three and four million dollars toward nature conservancy and preservation through her various projects.  One of Keven’s projects was the Four Canyon Preserve, which is the first preserve in northwest Oklahoma.  In fact, one of Keven’s goals with the Spirit of the Buffalo was to pay for the Four Canyon Preserve – she succeeded! 

Chris Hise, manager of Four Canyon Preserve, worked in the same office with Keven for about three years. He says, "she was a really neat lady, and with her illness and passing being so sudden, I somehow still expect to see her when I walk through the door of the OKC office."

Chris explained that, "one of the other idea sources for the Spirit of the Buffalo project came from the Tulsa Zoo's 'Penguins on Parade' exhibit a few years back. Though there have been several similar public art/display projects around the country, Keven made this one unique."

About Four Canyon Preserve, Chris adds, "It was always one of Keven's goals to see a western Oklahoma preserve become a reality, and I'm glad that she got to see it happen. Keven was also very fond of the Wichita Mountains area of southwestern Oklahoma, and The Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Osage County. She spent a lot of time at both of those places."
Click here to read The Nature Conservancy's "2006 Oklahoma Annual Report" which includes a section on Four Canyon Preserve and Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Click here to see a map of the preserves.

Photos by The Nature Conservancy Staff of Four Canyon Preserve
(Click photo for close-up)

Keven was a master gardener, poet, community volunteer, and inspiration to many. Family members say she excelled in everything she touched. She was active in the communities she lived in and was involved in many volunteer projects where she made lifelong friends.  She was blessed with a devoted husband, Ed, her family, and many good and loving friends who were kind and caring, and stood by her through her long illness. Family members say her strong spirit and love of life was supported by an outpouring of concern from family and friends which helped her through the difficult and final phase of her life.

The last project in Keven’s life was the Spirit of the Buffalo.  It began with a vision in early 2003 and was supposed to end in September 2004 after the buffalo stampeded the streets of downtown Oklahoma City and across the state in a display of splendor, showing off the wonderful and creative talent of Oklahoma artists.  As of January 2007, the herd is alive and well and continues to be wildly popular with both locals and visitors to our great state.  A beautiful full color, comprehensive book, Spirit of the Buffalo: Oklahoma’s Past and Future was released in December 2006, and the project continues to receive a great deal of attention as indicated by nearly 1600 hits per day on the website.  Ed said one of Keven’s thoughts as she devoted most of her time to the Spirit of the Buffalo was “…it’s all gonna end in September (2004)”…”but,” he says, “it hasn’t ended yet.”  Truly part of Keven Virgilio's legacy is in the buffalo!

I can’t help but sense a smile from heaven upon the whimsical herd of fiberglass buffalo who still roam this great state of Oklahoma and who still continue to have visitors from near and far.  The herd rides on!

Tammy Pinkston, Web Designer for the Spirit of the Buffalo

(Click image for close-up)

The above is in the front of the Spirit of the Buffalo: Oklahoma’s Past and Future
(image used by permission)

For Keven's memorial, it was her request that no flowers or gifts be sent but rather that anyone who desired to do so make a donation to the Oklahoma Chapter of The Nature Conservancy in her honor.

If you wish to make a donation, you may do so by mail to:

The Nature Conservancy
Oklahoma Chapter Office
2727 E. 21st St., Suite 102
Tulsa, Ok. 74114
Phone: (918) 585 1117

Or online here...

Spirit of the Buffalo originated as a public art project combining art, commerce and civic pride in Oklahoma featuring Oklahoma artists. Initial proceeds benefited the Nature Conservancy's work in Oklahoma. The website project continues through private funds.