Jack Horner found his first dinosaur bone when he was 8 years old.
Growing up in rural Shelby, Horner liked to go on hikes, looking for things to collect.
“I used to walk around collecting everything,” said Horner, now 65, with a crop of untamed white hair.
“I filled my parents house up with all kinds of junk I found – fossils, seashells, junk,” he said. “Anything that was cool looking, I brought it home.”
One of the most prominent and controversial paleontologists in the nation, Horner was an inspiration for the book and Hollywood blockbuster “Jurassic Park.”
And for 29-years, he’s been curator of paleontology at Montana State University’s Museum of the Rockies.
Yet Horner is an unlikely scholar. He nearly failed high school and later dropped out of college. He doesn’t like to read.
“There’s just something about Jack,” said Mick Hager, who hired Horner to work at the museum in 1982. “He’s creative, intuitive. He just has a real sense of the whole importance and relevance of it all.”
Horner was born June 15, 1946, the eldest of two brothers. His dad was a geologist and owned a sand and gravel plant. His mom was the company bookkeeper.
In high school, Horner failed just about every subject. He is dyslexic, but back then, few people knew what that was.
“I got a B in geometry because that’s a spacial thing,” Horner said. “That’s the highest grade I ever got in anything.”
He graduated with a D-average and was accepted to college at the University of Montana in Missoula. Back in those days, a high school diploma got you into any college in the state.
At UM, Horner flunked out seven times. He did a stint in the Marines in Vietnam before finally leaving college on his own.
Each time university officials issued Horner a pink slip, he’d somehow convince them to let him back in.
“Jack is a hard working young man whose academic abilities are not very high, but whose practical abilities and interest in geology are good in several respects,” Horner’s adviser wrote the dean in 1969 in support of Horner’s reinstatement. “He is intensely interested in fossils and would like to eventually work as a museum assistant or some like occupation.”
Horner left after he felt he’d learned enough.
“I had taken all the classes I wanted to take,” he said. “I didn’t pass any of them … but I learned what I wanted to learn. I learned what I needed to learn to be a paleontologist.”
Sure enough, he got a job.
After sending letters to ”every English-speaking museum in the world,” Horner got three job offers: “lowly technician” at Princeton’s Natural History Museum, head technician at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and curator at the Los Angeles County Museum.
“I took the Princeton university job cause it was the smallest town,” Horner said.
Horner’s first assignment at Princeton was to bend nails straight so they could be used to build an exhibit.
“My boss was a Quaker and he said, ‘There’s no sense buying new ones if you can bend the old ones and make them straight,’” Horner recalled.
But Horner was undeterred. He found some dinosaur fossils in the basement of the museum, studied them and wrote his first scientific research paper.
Every summer, he went back to Montana, dug up dinosaur bones and brought them back to Princeton to research and exhibit. Then, in 1977, he went back to the spot where he found his first dinosaur bone. He found a fossil he thought was a turtle.
“It turned out to be a squashed dinosaur egg,” he said.
In fact, it was the first dinosaur egg anyone had ever found in the Western Hemisphere.
Over the next few years, Horner made some of the biggest discoveries of his career and changed the world’s image of dinosaurs.
He found the world’s first dinosaur embryos at Egg Mountain south of Choteau. There, he uncovered a vast landscape of eggs, nests and baby dinosaurs. He discovered a new species of dinosaur, a large, duck-billed plant eater that he named Maiasaura, or “good mother lizard.”
Years of his research provided groundbreaking evidence that dinosaurs were social creatures that lived in colonies and cared for their young.
Horner was making news worldwide, but back in his home state of Montana, it wasn’t all positive.
State legislators complained that he was taking the fossils he found in Montana out-of-state and back to Princeton’s museum.
In 1981, the Museum of the Rockies had a staff of three: a secretary, a carpenter and Hager, then executive director and a paleontologist. The museum’s total budget was $89,500 a year.
Hager decided to track Horner down and ask him to share some of his fossils. So, he rented a car, drove to a gas station near Egg Mountain, where Horner and his crews continued to make monumental discoveries, and asked the attendant where to find Horner.
“He said, ‘Hang a left at the Teton River, go until you see some teepees and that’s where he’s at,” recalled Hager, now executive director of San Diego’s Natural History Museum.
When Hager found Horner’s teepee, Horner wasn’t home. Hager waited all night.
“In the morning, (Horner) pulled into camp and said, ‘Who the hell are you?’” Hager said.
Hager wound up offering Horner a job.
Horner showed up to his new job as curator of paleontology in 1982 in a beat-up Toyota Landcruiser.
“It got to the museum and it died,” Hager said.
During those first few years, Horner spent a lot of time trying to convince university administration to let him write grants and teach — Horner didn’t have a college degree saying he was qualified.
But all that changed in 1986.
Horner, then 40, got an honorary doctorate from the University of Montana. The same dean that had reinstated him to college after his sixth time flunking out placed the ceremonial hood over his head.
That same year, Horner received a MacArthur Fellowship; an honor nicknamed the “Genius Award.”
The fellowship is a monetary award; today the amount is $500,000, and it can be used for whatever the recipient chooses. It’s considered an investment in a person’s potential.
“I could have gone out and bought a Maserati with it,” Horner said. “But I didn’t. I bought a pickup truck to look for dinosaurs.”
He recruited graduate students, started teaching and built a laboratory. In it, Horner’s students started cutting up dinosaur bones and looking inside, something most museums wouldn’t dare to do.
Today, Horner’s lab, the Gabriel Laboratory for Molecular and Cellular Paleontology, is the only lab in the world that studies the microscopic anatomy of dinosaurs.
Horner was looking for dinosaur DNA when the film “Jurassic Park” premiered in 1993.
As director Steven Spielberg’s technical consultant on the film, Horner’s job was to make sure the dinosaurs looked as accurate as possible.
Horner said he pretty much got to make them the way he wanted, with the exception that Spielberg sometimes wanted them to be more drab.
“He thought browns and greens looked scarier than the colorful ones,” Horner said.
And while the movie was capturing children’s imaginations with Horner’s discoveries, Horner continued to provide new evidence about how dinosaurs actually lived.
Horner’s crews showed that dinosaurs were warm-blooded.
They proved that torosaurus and triceratops are actually the same dinosaur. Torosaurus is a juvenile triceratops.
In 2001, one of Horner’s students, Mary Schweitzer, found soft tissue in a 68-million year old T-rex fossil.
Years of Horner’s research has led to the now widely held theory that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. They both have hollow bones, feathers, a wishbone, and three-toed feet.
In the near future, Horner plans to genetically reverse-engineer a dinosaur from a chicken. As a chicken embryo develops, genes kick in that stop both a long tail and claw-like hands from growing, Horner said.
If scientists can figure out how to flip those genes off in a chicken and make it look more like its dinosaur ancestors, they can use that knowledge to solve genetic defects in people, he said.
“There’s definitely a medical component to it all once you start understanding what all these genes do,” he said.
MSU now has the biggest paleontology field research program in the world, with projects over the years in Argentina, Patagonia, southern France and Tanzania.
“Jack has certainly helped put the Museum of the Rockies and Bozeman on the map,” said Shelley McKamey, dean and director of the museum. “His contributions to science are incredible.”
But the greatest thing about Horner, McKamey said, is that he has taken science and made it accessible to the average person.
With a gentle voice and a grandfatherly demeanor, Horner tells kids and national media alike how he plans to build a “chicken-o-saurus.”
Next week, a new TV drama that Horner helped Spielberg create called “Terra Nova” premiers on the FOX network. It’s an adventure story about a family that travels back in time 85 million years to restart humanity. Horner authenticated the dinosaurs.
Horner lives just outside Bozeman. He has an adult son, Jason, and four grandchildren.
As he sits at desk in the cavernous basement of the museum, the computer chimes the time every half hour so he can keep track. Otherwise, he might not realize it’s time to go home.
“I’ve never had a job in my life,” he said. “I just play. I just love what I do. Work would be if someone told me I had to retire.”
Amanda Ricker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2628.