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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.

World Class Collections Make a World Class Museum

For decades, the Alf Museum has hosted stellar exhibits, students, staff, lab spaces, and fossils—yet, the collections storage space for priceless documents of past life did not match our aspirations to be a truly world class facility. The fossil collection is the heart of our museum. Cabinets and shelves were bursting at the seams with specimens, limiting the museum’s ability to collect new fossils and safely house historical ones. We needed additional space, and we needed it soon! Constructing a new building or expanding into existing rooms wasn’t an option. Fortunately, storage technology offered a creative solution.

Collections space, prior to renovation

If you can’t make new space, the best alternative is to make existing space more flexible. Sliding rows of cabinets offered a perfect solution! McMurray-Stern, a local company that specializes in storage for museums, archives, government facilities, and businesses, worked with Alf Museum staff to create a new vision for the old collection space. The final plans provided a 60 percent increase in storage capacity. The previous cabinets, along with many newly purchased ones, would be placed onto a carriage system. Each bank of cabinets sits atop a metal frame housing an internal motor—with the touch of a button, the whole bundle of cabinets slides along rails set into the floor. Aisles open and close to permit access to each row of storage.

Removing cabinets from the collection space.

In order to install the system, the previous configuration had to be removed first. But, it wasn’t as simple as just removing old cabinets and shelving. All of the fossils had to be moved, too. The downstairs exhibit hall was closed off and used as a temporary storage space for everything. In mid-May 2017, after the last school tour of the year, a crew of museum staff, volunteers, and Webb students sprang into action. Seventy new cabinets, ultimately slated for the collection, were moved off a truck and into the Hall of Footprints. Drawers of fossils from the collection were moved into each cabinet, with the location of every drawer and cabinet carefully marked and recorded for later reference. Every single drawer was also photographed, to provide a complete visual record of our collection—the first time it has ever been done! Once the old cabinets in the collection were emptied, they moved into the temporary storage space. For the first time in decades, the collection room was completely empty!

Next, a construction crew poured a new layer of concrete to support the compactor system, followed by carriage and cabinet installation. Once each bank was in place, museum staff and volunteers moved the fossils back. It took long hours and late nights, but finally every cabinet and every fossil was back where it belonged. The careful organizational efforts of collections manager Gabe Santos, working with the whole museum team, ensured that each specimen was where it belonged—not a small task when moving 231 cabinets and more than 175,000 fossils!

But, sliding rows of cabinets are only the most visible part of the renovation. We also needed to upgrade the work space to match. Curation practices have advanced considerably since the founding of the museum. In the “old days,” it was sufficient to record data on an index card and paint a permanent label on each specimen. Today, every specimen also is entered into a computer database and photographed digitally. Particularly delicate fossils get custom foam mounts made using advanced archival materials. Each of these steps requires special materials and workspaces. So, the final portion of the project included the installation of new computers, photographic equipment, and tables for volunteers and staff to process fossils and their associated data.

The collections upgrade provides space not just for the acquisition of new fossils, but also for the proper storage of “old” ones. Prior to the renovation, many of the fossils were crowded into drawers, sometimes with bones sitting on top of other bones. This is not a good way to store fragile fossils—overcrowding contributes to fossil damage. The next big task is to “uncrowd” many of our fossils (particularly those from the early years of the museum) and place them into appropriate containers. Many fossils also remain uncataloged, and have not been fully identified, studied, or entered into the museum database. There is lots to do yet!

The renovated collection space.

“Completion of this project means our collections are now more fully accessible, thus increasing our global footprint in the paleontological research and museum education communities. Also, we now have space to house all the fossils that will be found by Webb students on peccary trips over the next few decades,” said museum director Don Lofgren.

The Alf Museum extends special thanks to key donors of this project, including Blake and Andrea Brown ‘68, Yanji Luo and Li Jiang P‘20, the Zemurray Foundation, Sam Zemurray ‘61, Dodd Fischer ‘61, Ronald Quon ‘55, the McMahan Family Fund at the Rancho Santa Fe Foundation, James Wang ‘51, Hugh Pitcher ‘68, Richard Kron ‘68, Jason Pasley ‘96, Monica Atiyeh Whitaker ‘96, Brian Zipser ‘96, Christopher Cord ‘60, William Marshall ‘96, Daniel Dexeus ‘96, and Heidi Marti ‘06.

Paleontologist & Educator Bolortsetseg Minjin Honored by Alf Museum

Dr. Bolortsetseg Minjin, noted paleontologist and educator, has been selected as the third recipient of the Raymond M. Alf Award for Excellence in Paleontological Research and Education. 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. Dr. Bolortsetseg is recognized in particular as founder of the Institute for the Study of Mongolian Dinosaurs (ISMD), whose mission is “To strengthen geoscience education in Mongolia, conserve Mongolia’s fossil heritage, promote Mongolian paleontology, and edify the next generation of Mongolian paleontologists.” Continue reading

Remembering Life Trustee Hugh Rose

Hugh Rose (third from left) in the Gobi Desert, with paleontologist Wann Langston, Hugh’s spouse Mary Rose, and Alf Museum director Don Lofgren

On July 4, 2017, the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology lost Hugh Rose, one of its most cherished leaders and supporters. At age 90, Hugh passed away from natural causes, surrounded by his family at their Tucson home.

While building a career as a successful business executive, Hugh and his wife Mary amassed a spectacular collection of fossils and began teaching paleontology out of their Illinois home. In the 1970s, Hugh was asked to evaluate the value of the Alf Museum’s collections, and he ended up becoming a founding member of the board of trustees in 1979, later enrolling his son Matthew ’82 in Webb School of California.

Early on, Hugh recognized the great educational and research potential of the Museum. He and Mary donated most of their personal collection of fossils in 1985 and also established the Hugh & Mary Rose Endowed Fund to provide a permanent source of revenue for the Museum’s operations. If one were to ask who was the creative force behind the Peccary Society Dinner, those memorable peccary glasses, and the peccary trips to Mongolia, that would be Hugh Rose.

Without Hugh’s foresight and pragmatism, the Museum could not have experienced the tremendous growth it did over the last four decades. As Board Chairman Larry Ashton recalls, “Hugh Rose was a good friend and giant supporter of the Alf Museum in every sense of the word. It is largely because of Hugh’s efforts, at a time when the then fledgling museum was in question, that we have the museum today. He helped to organize the first trip to Mongolia in 1995 and was an active member at our board meetings. Hugh rightfully earned his place as a Life Trustee after having served on our board for almost 40 years. He was always interested in what was going on at the museum. When he could no longer travel due to his declining health, Don Lofgren and I would visit him in Tucson. I used to love to sit in his home office and listen to him talk about our museum, his life and his wonderful family, who have become so involved with our museum as well. He would often say to me, ‘I just love that museum.’ His passing is a big loss for me and our museum. I am glad that we have his daughter Mary Rose on our board to continue in the Rose tradition.”

The appreciation for Hugh was echoed in the words of Museum Director Don Lofgren. “Hugh was an amazing supporter of the Museum and a close friend. What really struck me about Hugh, was for a man who had accomplished so much in the business world, he was incredibly humble. This was evident in his leadership of the board of trustees which was critical to the Museum’s growth. For example, he started the Peccary Society Dinners and international peccary trips, but would not take any credit, always quickly deflecting praise to others. For me personally, Hugh helped guide the Museum through some major growing pains when I was new to Webb in the 1990s, and I was able to gain a lot of confidence knowing that I could always count on him. A more enthusiastic, dedicated, and visionary leader is hard to imagine.”

As we honor the legacy that Hugh Rose left at the Alf Museum, we are filled with gratitude and admiration for his passion, generosity, and dedication. We extend our condolences to Hugh’s wife, Mary, to his children Nancy, Greg, Matt ’82 and Mary, and his grandchildren.