Friday, July 10, 2009

Opinion Article by Mark Junge, July 10, 2009, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

Dino's Wyoming Footprints Are Large

Anybody who has kids and grandkids or, for that matter, anybody who knows just a smidgin about children, is aware how crazy they are about dinosaurs. Anybody, that is, except maybe adults whose memories of their childhoods have been buried by layers of sediment..kind of like what happened to the dinosaurs themselves.

One of the biggest dinosaurs of them all was Apatosaurus, also known as Brontosaurus or "Thunder Lizard", a 30-ton giant with a neck and tail each 30 feet long. It was such an impressive beast that in the 1930s Sinclair Oil adopted it as a logo for advertising gasoline and motor oil. Green and endearing, "Dino the Dinosaur" is familiar not only to people who lived through the Great Depression but also their Baby Boomer kids who pulled up to the pumps at Sinclair gas stations. A Sinclair website boasts: "Few trademarks can equal Dino's unique appeal."

Collectors found actual "Dino" bones 130 years ago at Como Bluff, fifty miles north of Laramie. The renowned paleontologist who supervised the collectors was O.C. Marsh, whose first name, "Othniel" seems as ancient as the dinosaurs he discovered. Eight years later the University of Wyoming was established with a small museum. Shortly thereafter dinosaur bones like Dino's were put on display and shipped to places such as the Peabody Museum at Yale, the Smithsonian Institution, the Carnegie Museum at Pittsburgh and to New York's American Museum of Natural History.

During my first visit to the Wyoming campus I had an experience like that of many other Wyomingites. At the north end of "Prexy's Pasture" I had an encounter with a life-sized copper and steel Tyrannosaurus rex guarding the Geological Museum. Why that menacing but impressive statue was there I wasn't sure but at the time I thought it was a pretty neat gimmick. Students used to throw pine cones into its mouth for good luck.

It was much later when I came to understand and appreciate the statue welded and ball-peened by geology professor Sam Knight. If you ask two former Knight students, Al Simpson and his brother Pete, they will testify to the artistic ability of S.H. Knight, the man whose name is attacthed to the UW Geology Building and who created the T. rex statue. They'll tell you how, at a time when there were no PowerPoint presentations, Professor Knight could draw a perfect circle on the blackboard behind him while looking directly at his astounded freshman. They'll tell you about the marvelous three-dimensional multi-colored chalk drawing that he created on the blackboard.

It was even later when I came to understand Wyoming's premiere place in the history of paleontology, when I began to learn that Sam Knight and his father, Wibur, were only two among a group of world famous paleontologists who worked at Wyoming fossil sites like Como Bluff, Fossil Butte and Lance Creek. The bones quarried from those places are scattered and studied all over the planet.

The Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming is special. Not just for its long association with the fascinating history of dinosaur excavations, but because of the kids of all ages who keep coming to it for tours and information about the dinosaurs. But that's over. The museum closed on June 30.

Wouldn't it be fitting if some oil company that likes to use dinosaurs to manufacture and advertise fuel for cars and trucks would rise up from the primordial swamp of corporate America and chip in a few bucks to preserve a world famous museum and its small but dedicated staff? Wouldn't it be something if the staff of the museum would not be erased as easily as a Sam Knight drawing? Dino, who knows how hard it is to be green, would squeal with delight.

Mark Junge is an author and photographer from Cheyenne, Wyoming

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