Dr. Leo Finkenbinder leaves a legacy in Costa Rica

Zana Finkenbinder did not understand why everyone was “crazy about Costa Rica.”

In 1986, her husband, Leo, who was a professor of microbiology at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Okla. told her that even though it was not yet time for him to go on sabbatical, he wanted to go to spend a semester in Costa Rica.

Before she came down, Fink talked to the field director about Zana’s disposition against going to Costa Rica. Knowing that the field director had a baby Queztal in the valley, Fink took her to see the bird fly for the first time.

“It decided to fly, flew across the river and the wind sucked him into the river,” Zana said. “Leo dove in and kept the bird above water.”

Fink gave the bird to Zana and she warmed it up with her sweater. When they put the bird back in their nest, the Finkenbinders were worried that the bird’s parents would not accept it. However, the male and female Queztal remained and fed their baby. The baby Queztal perched itself on a branch and tried again. This time it flew.

“Everyone was crying,” Zana said. “The male Queztal flew and just grazed my shoulder with the end of his tail plumes as though to say ‘thank you.’ I came back crazier than everyone else about Costa Rica.”

The Chacón family also made Zana crazy about Costa Rica.

“They are the most amazing family I have ever met in my life,” she said. When the Chacón’s heard that Fink’s wife was coming to visit, they prepared a “big fiesta” for her similar to what a family would do for a daughter-in-law.

“Fink,” as Dr. Leo Finkenbinder is affectionately referred to by his students at both SNU and Olivet, first heard about the Savegre valley in San Gerardo de Dota, Costa Rica when he was working at Southern Nazarene Universtiy (SNU).

While at Lake Overholser Church-Nazarene, Fink met Pastor Ken Christoffersen. Christofferson and his wife had been to Costa Rica as missionaries. Fink told Christofferson about his work in Trinidad and Tobago.

“And he said, ‘oh man, instead of going to Trinidad and Tobago, go to this place that sits under heaven in Costa Rica,” Fink said. “Then he waxed on about it for two hours.”

In 1982, Chrisoffersen took Fink and SNU students on a field trip to Costa Rica.

“We traveled around the country,” Fink said. “and fell in love with that habitat and the Chacón family.”

Effrain and Caridad Chacón, who passed away in the fall of 2015, with their eleven children, pioneered and homesteaded the Savegre valley. Their oldest son, Marino, served as a guide for Fink, students and other professors from SNU.

“On that high cloud forest trail one sees in just 400 meters of hiking a greater number of species than exist on the entire North American continent,” a report by Fink and Dr. Dwight Neuenschwander from SNU stated.

The last night of their visit, the Chacóns showed Finkenbinder and the students their plans to triple in size their then 80 acre pasture. They could not articulate then their desire for the Chacón’s to save the biodiverse valley, but they later sent letters to the Chacóns urging them to not cut down the rainforests. A year later Marino Chacon called to inform the Americans that he and his family would conserve the rainforest.


“In 1983, when Marino Chaco called and said they weren’t cutting down anymore forests, there were a bunch of students who were high-fiving,” Fink said.

In 1986, Fink went back to Costa Rica with Zana. Once his wife was on board, the couple got approved to begin teaching science classes which the began in the early 1990s. By 1998, they had built the Queztal Education Research Center (QERC).

Zana served as as the Director of Development for the QERC. In the macho society of Costa Rica, she supervised a team of all male construction workers. In one meeting with an ambassador from Spain, Zana had to speak through a male mediator. During a break, she served the ambassador coffee in a Bodaga. Afterwards, the ambassador stopped Zana when she began to speak to the mediator and allowed her to speak directly to him.

Zana worked with an architect named Manuel.

“She was there and was the forewoman,” Dr. Aggie Veld of Olivet’s biology department said. “She met with the architect, she picked out the tiles and the dimensions of the room” Manuel worked with Zana to keep the respect of the men. At one point during construction, the construction crew had to walk on a 2×4 to get to the second level. Zana, who is afraid of heights, wanted the construction crew to help her.

“But Manuel told me, ‘you must practice. You cannot let them help you,’” Zana said. Manuel feared that she would lose the respect of the crew if they assisted her. “It was the most terrifying thing, but I practiced it, and they never knew that I was afraid,” she said.

Veld added: “She had to earn her rank. But she was know as Doña Zana and as such because she embraced culture and respected the people, they loved her. And when I walked into a restaurant in Costa Rica they came to the door, they would say “Doña Zana!” and greeted her with a hug … every place that I have been they have known “Doña Zana.” So she she has become quite a legend in her own right because of how she worked with the people and learned how to abide by their customs and meet the needs of the American travelers and students in the process thereof.”

The work that both Leo and Zana completed is still making an impact. The Queztal was predicted to be extinct by 2015. According to the most recent estimate, there are 300 Queztals living in the valley. Fink plans on retiring from his position at Olivet at the end of the fall 2016 semester.

Last year, part of the QERC was named the Leo and Zana Finkenbinder Hall in honor of the work that the couple had completed there. SNU surprised the Finkenbinders by flying them down to Costa Rica on the pretense that they should show the administrative team around the QERC.

“I had no idea they were going to do that up until the point that they took the banner off the sign of the building … It was a total surprise. Very unexpected, totally not deserved. But we were so appreciative,” Fink said.

Nathan DiCamillo, Life and Culture Editor

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