Wednesday, December 12, 2018


One of things I like about looking at pictures when you're young and also seeing old friends you haven't seen in a long time is, for me, a glimpse of who I was. 
               Lea Thompson  (paraphrase)

The 2018 Winter Solstice will take place on Friday, December 21 (in Colorado Springs).  At exactly 3:23 PM Mountain Standard Time the sun will shine directly over the Tropic of Capricorn (the Circle of Latitude about 23 degrees south of the equator) and the North Pole will be aimed furthest away from the sun (on the 23.5 degrees tilt of the earth’s axis).  Most people in the northern hemisphere think of the Winter Solstice as the shortest day and the longest night of the year.

Here in Colorado the long cold nights and short days seem a time to reflect on our lives, and on the losses of our good friends.  Almost a decade ago I lost my collecting buddy of over 40 years and I still miss him.

I retired 12.5 years ago from a University system, an event that would not have been possible without Jim Madsen, the Utah dinosaur guy (perhaps best known for Allosaurus).  I arrived at the University of Utah, in fall 1967, as a recent MA graduate but originally as a small-town Kansas kid from a high school of 49 students, with an equally scared wife of one week who came from small-town South Dakota. We were terrified at the size of Salt Lake City, viewed as we popped over the summit, and were equally frightened at the size of the institution where I was scheduled to enroll.  I knew that vertebrate fossils held my interest; however, the department did not have such a paleontologist on staff and I was scared again.  Then Lee Stokes, my advisor, told me to go up the hill and visit Jim Madsen at the bone annex (a refurbished army barracks).  So, I did and a friendship of 42 years began—and I started to feel at home.  Jim suggested a dissertation problem for me, perhaps somewhat disappointed that it did not involve dinosaurs, and nurtured me through classes, field work, good times, and certainly the comprehensive exams.  He was always there with a wisecrack, a laugh, and that dry sense of humor.  He turned over portions of his lab in the old geology building to me, and guided the way toward graduation.  On the first draft of my dissertation Lee Stokes told me that I was too poetic and ascribed anthropomorphic qualities to the rocks.  I said, “Dr Stokes, Jim Madsen taught me about talking rocks”!  Little did he realize that after a couple of adult beverages in the moonlight at the Cleveland Lloyd Quarry, you could hear the rocks speak---or maybe it was the wind, or the spirits, or the dinosaurs, or something! 

In spring 1971 I had finished my first year of teaching back in Kansas and badly needed a summer job in Utah, so I could finish my dissertation.  I applied to every national park and forest service district in the State—no luck.  I was essentially broke, had a new baby, and no job, and our apartment lease was up.  In fact, the phone service was scheduled to be cut off in the afternoon.  So, in a stroke of luck I received a call, in early afternoon, from Dinosaur National Monument offering me a summer position as a Ranger.  It seems that Jim Madsen had called them and said I was a good guy who needed a job.  Could I start next week?  We were off to Utah the next day.

I will never forget that act of kindness and it taught me a valuable lesson in life.  Be proactive in trying to help your students.  Jump ahead of them.  Don’t expect rewards for everything. Listen to the rocks. Be kind to people.  Use encouraging words. Have a positive outlook on life, and enjoy all aspects of it. 

After settling down in Hays for the next 20 years, my spouse and I and our family became even closer friends with the Madsen’s.  We traveled to Utah at least 4 times per year for research and saw Jim and Sue annually at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings.  Virtually every one of those meetings has a story.  In Flagstaff, Arizona, we had been at a reception and all participants had a couple of adult beverages.  At that time Jim was driving a Land Rover with a replica fossil turtle for a hood ornament and a license plate that said “fossil” -- that vehicle was a gift from Japan!  On a trip over there to put some dinosaurs in a museum he was asked upon leaving is there was anything they could do for him.  So, in his usual way he said something like “I could use a new Land Rover.”  In a few months it was in the U.S. for his pick up.

At any rate, in Flagstaff we picked up a couple of people needing a ride—paleontologists who were “really famous” back in the 1960s and 70s.  What I remember is that these two gentlemen were sitting on the open tailgate of the Land Rover, dragging their feet and singing something—maybe drinking songs from the old days—very loudly as we slowly traveled down the main street of Flagstaff.  To this day I am uncertain how we all stayed out of jail.

In the meetings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History I went over and poked Jim since the room was dark, the talk boring, and Jim was snoring.

In Texas he was hit by flying bat guano when we got too close to the daily flight from the bridge.  At the University of Kansas doings Jim and Sue rode the train back to Nebraska and we were scheduled to pick them up and then travel together to the meetings.  My spouse and I were to pick them up around 3:30 am on a Wednesday morning—we thought.  They had arrived a day early so they were holed up in a small train depot in Holdrege, Nebraska-- freezing until we drove the 120 miles to pick them up.
Sometime around 1980 Jim and I got involved in writing environmental impact statements for pipelines and power lines.  These were some of the best years of our lives together—mucking around and collecting fossils.
One trip we were looking for fossils in remote Utah and buried the pickup in mud and Jim sent me walking toward a small central Utah town to locate a wrecker.  Have you ever tried to hitch a ride wearing bib overalls covered with mud?  That was an 8-mile walk.

The bibbers were another story.  Jim surmised that if we wore overalls the local population would let us on their land to hunt for fossils.  It seemed to work although we looked straight out of Deliverance.  It was also about this time that he taught me about the merits of gathering wild Utah asparagus to cook back over the campfire.  He was always quick to remind people, with his little grin, that the aspartic acid had a strong effect on one’s urine.
In turn, I mentioned to Jim one time that I was a bee keeper and entered my honey in the county fair.  Before I knew it, Jim became a bee keeper, attending classes, bottling honey, and generally having fun.  I believe, to this day, his colonies remain strong.

On a trip to Wyoming Jim had a bum knee so he said those famous words, “just drive a little closer on that white stuff so I can see the rocks”.  Result:  buried pickup again.  Well, Jim can’t walk so I take off again toward a drilling rig maybe 10 miles away, one we had noticed on the trip in.  I found a land man, caught a ride into town, got a wrecker, came back out and---- no Jim.  Seems like he got a couple of antelope hunters to pull him out of the mud with a portable come-a-long.  Short story, it cost a pot full of money---cash-- to get the wrecker and I was left with 5-6 dollars.  We were very hungry and since that small amount of money would not buy much food, we headed to our sleeping quarters.  In those days’ ATMs did not exist in small-town Wyoming and the banks closed on time. So, we made a command decision and got a six pack of beer—a form of food. Sitting in the pickup I said---“no opener”.  Jim said, “hop over to that fence post and pop off a couple of lids”.  I did, and that is how I learned to pop lids.

Jim was always proud of his fruit trees and seemed to have a green thumb.  On one visit we had partaken of a couple of adult beverages and went outside in the moonlight to sample the Queen Anne cherries on his tree.  We were hungry and just camped under the tree and made like a couple of bears on those nice sweet fruits.  There were two things that happened next morning.  One, we went outside and then noticed that every one of the remaining cherries had a nice worm inside.  All Jim said was “well, we got our protein yesterday”.  Two, Jim always had a sensitive digestive system and the mixture of beer and wormy cherries really riled things up and then ended with a violent discharge of gas.  Jim would just get that little smirk on his face.

I shall always remember Jim for his generosity and kindness.  Anything that you wanted—Jim said, “take it”.  In 1978 we moved to Salt Lake for a sabbatical leave.  Jim gave us his family home to stay in—no rent, only pay the utilities.  When we arrived on New Year’s Day, they had dinner waiting.   Upon leaving after the stay we gave them a dog, a blue healer—Bo Cepheus—I don’t know if Sue ever forgave us for that.  You need a dinosaur cast for teaching? How many do you want?  Need a dino belt buckle—here have a few.  Need a car to drive while in Salt Lake?  Hey, we have an extra one.  Let me buy you dinner, the company can afford it.  I also know that Jim established several scholarship prizes, such as the First Wednesday of the Year scholarship or something like that and gave it to struggling paleontologists trying to succeed in school.  His generosity was outstanding.

I shall remember Jim for his sense of humor, often self effacing.  He taught one of his dogs to bark whenever someone showed off their middle index finger.  He taught another dog to carry out empty beer cans and put them in the recycling bin.  He was called up to a site near Brigham City since a guy had found several bones in the loose Bonneville sands.  After a little easy digging Jim thought he hit a bonanza, especially with the bird bones since they generally are rare in the fossil record.  Then the family patriarch came about and noted that the dig site was where the old privy used to be located!  One time he was called to excavate some large bones in the Salt Lake valley.  At that time Jim was trying to protect paleontological resources in Utah and so often called the TV station or newspaper to cover the discovery event.  So, he did.  As Jim was excavating the bones (thought to be Pleistocene in age, ~14,000 YBP) he happened to notice one foot had a steel horse shoe mounted. To hear him tell the story, he packed up and got the Hades out of there.  The TV station called and wanted to know where he was.  He played dumb and said one of his friends must have played a trick on him.

I can’t tell you how much that I miss my buddy Jim.  He was my best friend, my co-author of numerous publications, and my collecting colleague of many years. 

Jim was not one to sing to others.  In fact, I only remember one time hearing him sing.  We were on some sort of a field trip staying at a podunk motel in Colorado not far from the La Sal Mountains.  We were sitting on the balcony, having an adult beverage, watching the moon come up, and listening to 60s music.  Along came a song by the Hollywood Argyles called Alley Oop—you know, a ditty based on the comic strip about a guy who rode a dinosaur.  Well, Jim started belting it out:
He don’t eat nothin but a bear cat stew
Well this cat’s name is Alley Oop
he got a chauffeur that’s a genuine dinosaur
and he can knuckle your head before you count to four
ride daddy ride
hi yo dinosaur
ride daddy ride

Allosaurus jimmadseni displayed at Dinosaur nation Monument.