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Gabriel Santos

Paleontologist & Educator Greg Wilson Honored by Alf Museum

Claremont, CA – On October 12, the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology recognized Dr. Greg Wilson with the Alf Award for Excellence in Paleontological Research and Education at the annual Peccary Society dinner. The award honors a paleontologist who demonstrates exceptional achievement both in original scientific research, as well as in education and outreach at the primary and secondary school (K-12) levels.

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Raymond Alf: A Life in Full

 

Ray Alf Portrait

Ray Alf Portrait

A new biography on museum founder, Dr. Raymond Alf, is coming this Fall!

The Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology was named in honor of its founder Dr. Raymond Manfred Alf, a man who established a museum devoted to paleontology on a secondary school campus, one now nationally accredited and world-class in status.

Raymond Alf had a life full of rich experiences. He was born to a Christian missionary family in China and moved to the states where he attended Doane College (Nebraska). There, he became a nationally ranked sprinter who set a national record and narrowly missed qualifying for the American Olympic Team (1928). Alf came to southern California to run for the Los Angeles Athletic Club in 1929 and got a job teaching at a country boarding school called Webb. While here, Alf developed into a teacher whose methods were revolutionary for their time and that had a life-lasting influence on his students. To Alf, teaching paleontology was more than just an academic subject. It was a call to action to be creative and think deeply without constraint about the larger questions in life, as each student was asked to consider what they would do with their little moment of time, in relation to the vast universe. Also, he melded his classroom activities with fossil collecting expeditions called peccary trips. No other high school teacher in America took their students on a search for fossils on weekends, school breaks, and summer vacations. Alf’s loosely organized group of fossil enthusiasts was called the Peccary Society. In 1967 the new Raymond Alf Museum was built to house and display the fossils found by the Peccary Society, and the rest is history, as the museum Alf created is thriving today.

 

Patrick Muffler ’54 pouring Ray Alf his morning coffee and Dick Lynas ’55 lighting his cigarette on the 1953 Summer Peccary Trip.

 

The life of Raymond Alf is such an amazing story that its warrants a book length treatment.  “Moment of Time: The Life of Raymond Alf and the History of the Peccary Society” (by Don Lofgren, with Jennifer Liu ’05) is nearing the final stages of production and should be available for distribution in the fall of 2018.

The book is filled with interesting Alf facts, such as:

  • In 1926, he scored the fastest touchdown in the history of football when he fell on the ball in the end zone of the opposing team after his Doane College team kicked off in the second quarter (thus, no time elapsed on the game clock….making it the “fastest”).
  • Before finding a job at Webb School in 1929, he was new to Los Angeles and “starving,” so he applied for a job to play the French horn in a band on cruises to Hawaii (he could also play trombone and piano).
  • He established a small natural history museum at Webb in the spring of 1936, six months before “The Peccary” was found, a discovery always thought to have inspired Alf to establish a museum at Webb.
  • He took all the undergraduate courses for a geology major and then completed a master’s degree in geology, all in less than one year at the University of Colorado in 1939.
  • The Raymond M. Alf Museum (of Paleontology added in 1993) was dedicated to him on November 3, 1968 in a ceremony on the front steps of the museum (the golden anniversary of the dedication will be celebrated on Alumni Weekend).
  • He hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon 50 times, the last with the class of 1970, who asked him to be their commencement speaker.
  • He received three honorary PhDs in the 1970s, from Lewis & Clark College, Claremont Graduate School, and Doane College.
  • He passed away in 1999 at the age of 93, having lived 70 of those years on the Webb campus, many of which were spent in a house built specifically for him in 1964.

Over 80 former students and faculty were interviewed for the book, as well as members of the Alf family. Their Ray Alf stories and experiences are woven into the text of the book to capture the essence of what he was like. Also, the book documents the “Peccary Experience,” the impact Ray Alf had on his students in the classroom and on peccary trips, a powerful one as these quotes attest:

Roger Millar ’61: Ray enriched the lives of all he met. His passion for discovery was contagious, his charisma inimitable, his energy boundless, his integrity nonpareil; a unique and unforgettable man who will forever remain in the hearts of all his students. If one had to pick one truly pivotal, transformative experience in one’s formative years, invariably it would be that of the peccary trips.

Peter Plaut ’60: Peccary trips were fun escapes to a different world with no classes, no deadlines…. when I look back, I recognize how meaningful those trips were in learning to be independent, responsible, inquisitive, and how important they were in answering Ray Alf’s challenge of what to do with your moment in time.

Sam Zemurray ’61: Ray Alf was the greatest teacher I ever had….his real classroom was the great American West where he led young boys like me on adventures of discovery. What we discovered were fossils, earth history, the beauty of our vast country, and many times ourselves. Ray had an unbounded intellect that could soar and inspire all around him. Through the study of fossils, he instilled in his students a profound reverence for life.

Dale Boller ‘63: Peccary trips bring personal engagement with rocks, mountains, sore muscles, a stack of dirty dishes, and the thrill of discovery and infinite reflection; life serving experiences you’ll never get in a book or lecture. It’s Experiential Learning at its best, Ray Alf and Webb School style.

Mark Anton ’74: The Peccary trips were the ultimate adventure for a young boy….taking the cue from the indomitable spirit of Dr. Alf. His life force was off the charts and has moved so many in purposeful directions.

Finally, as with most great educators, Ray Alf was an entertainer. He liked to hang from the pipes in his classroom while lecturing about the opposable thumb in primates, or do chin-ups while waiting for his students to finish a quiz. On his peccary trips, he would take a raw egg and crack it on his bald head and then swallow the contents, or climb over a fence in a cattle pasture and taunt a bull to chase him. When a fossil was found, he would shout “Butay!” When students entered his classroom, they would often ask him, “are we going to have a test today?” Alf’s reply was that “every day is a test of a man’s character.” Ray Alf weaved honor and integrity into everything he did at Webb. As Gard Jameson ’71 said, “on the planet there are a lot of great men and women, but there are few giants. Ray Alf was a giant.”

 

A peccary trip group in Arizona pose before they prepared a slab of sandstone with trackways for removal in 1960. Front (kneeling) L to R: Bob Warford ’63, Bob Mixon ’63, Bob Baum ’61, Jim Hall ’59 Back (standing) L to R: Sam Zemurray ’61, David Proctor ’63, Bill Schulze ’63, Dwight Morgan ’65, Ray Lindquist ’59, Thad Smith ‘56

 

After a weekend of fossil hunting in the Mojave Desert, the Peccary Society enjoyed a delicious meal at the Red Rooster Diner in Victorville on the way home. L to R: Ray Alf, Thad Smith ’56, Roger Millar ’61, Unknown, Unknown.

Rare tooth find reveals horned dinosaurs in eastern North America

Close up of the ceratopsid (horned dinosaur) tooth. This is the first evidence of horned dinosaurs in eastern North America. Credit: Photo by George Phillips, MDWFP Museum of Natural Science.

New research from Augustyn Family Curator, Dr. Andy Farke

A chance discovery in Mississippi provides the first evidence of an animal closely related to Triceratops in eastern North America. The fossil, a tooth from rocks that were between 68 and 66 million years old, shows that two halves of the continent previously thought to be separated by seaway were probably connected before the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.

“The fossil is small, only the size of a quarter, but it packs a ton of information,” said Andrew Farke, a paleontologist at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology at The Webb Schools in Claremont, California, and one of the authors on the paper announcing the discovery. “The shape of this tooth, with its distinctive split root, is absolutely unique among dinosaurs,” Farke continued. “We only have the one fossil, but it’s more than enough to show that an animal very similar to Triceratops–perhaps even Triceratops itselfmade it into eastern North America.”

Horned dinosaurs, or ceratopsids, had previously only been found in western North America and Asia. A seaway down the middle of North America, which linked the Arctic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, split the continent into eastern and western halves during much of the Late Cretaceous (around 95 to 66 million years ago). This means that animals that evolved in western North America after the splitincluding ceratopsidswere prevented from traveling east. Due to a lack of preserved rock and fossils, scientists weren’t sure precisely when the seaway disappeared and animals could once again walk freely across North America. The newly described fossil strongly suggests that this happened when large dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops were still around, before the major global extinction 66 million years ago.

 

Tooth of a ceratopsid horned dinosaur from Mississippi, held next to a left lower jaw half of Triceratops from Montana. Credit: Photo by Jeremy Copley, MDWFP Museum of Natural Science

 

George Phillips, paleontology curator at the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks’ Museum of Natural Science and discoverer of the fossil, was also an author on the paper. He described the moment of discovery: “I was excited because I knew it was a dinosaur tooth. I called my volunteer, Michael Estes, over to share in the discovery, and he was beside me in seconds. I knew it wasn’t a duck-billed dinosaur, and within 30 minutes of having found it, I posted on Facebook that I’d collected some rare plant-eating dinosaur tooth. It was none other than my colleague Lynn Harrell who made the suggestion, within minutes of my post, that it looked like a ceratopsian tooth.”Although previously known fragments indicated horned dinosaurs in Maryland and North Carolina, those fossils were of more “primitive” species that likely lived in the area well before it was separated from western North America. “The discovery is shocking because fossils of ceratopsid horned dinosaurs had never been discovered previously from eastern North America. It’s certainly the most unique and important vertebrate fossil discovery I’ve ever made,” said Phillips.

The ceratopsid tooth, from the lower jaw of the animal, was found in the Owl Creek Formation in northern Mississippi. Although that part of the state was under water at the time, it was fairly close to land. Farke and Phillips speculate that the tooth probably washed out to sea from a horned dinosaur living along the coastline in that area.

The fossil is housed at the Mississippi Museum of Natural Sciences, and published in the journal PeerJ. The open access article can be downloaded here.

 

The discovery site of the tooth from a ceratopsid horned dinosaur in Mississippi. Credit: Photo by Andrew Smith, Mississippi State University Center for Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflicts