Jack Horner Honored as Museum of the Rockies Begins Expansion

Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies, reacts on Thursday after learning his position will be an endowed position after a donation to the museum.

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About 100 people gathered Thursday in the house that Jack built to honor Jack Horner, the world-famous paleontologist who’s retiring after 34 years of groundbreaking research that put the Museum of the Rockies and Montana State University on the map.

Standing on a high balcony overlooking giant fossils and raptor replicas in Siebel Dinosaur Hall, Horner declared it to be “the coolest place in the world.”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you,” Horner told the gathering. “I really, really appreciate all the people who made this happen — all the volunteers, all the staff, everyone in Bozeman, everyone in Montana.”

To honor Horner, Ralph Steele, president of the museum’s board of trustees, announced that Whitney and Betty MacMillan of the museum’s national advisory board have donated $3 million to create an endowed position, the John R. Horner curator of paleontology.

The endowment will support the salary and benefits for Horner’s successors “forever,” said Shelley McKamey, museum executive director.

A big celebration for the public to meet Horner and wish him well will be held on May 21. McKamey said Thursday’s event was for the professors, students, museum staff and trustees who worked with him most closely.

The Museum of the Rockies was just a small building back in 1982 when then-director Mick Hager hired Horner. MSU President Waded Cruzado said it’s hard to imagine now, but it had no dinosaur exhibits.

A University of Montana dropout, Horner had been working with dinosaurs at a low-level job at Princeton. He and the late Bob Makela discovered a nest full of baby dinosaur fossils near Choteau, which led to scientific papers theorizing that some dinosaurs cared for their young. Horner was also at the forefront of a wild new theory, Cruzado said, that dinosaurs are more like birds than reptiles.

His discoveries earned a MacArthur genius grant and countless awards over the years, led to writing eight books, raising more than $7.7 million for the museum, and won the chance to advise filmmaker Steven Spielberg on the “Jurassic Park” movies.

Horner’s summer digs in Montana’s badlands filled the museum with the world’s largest collections of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops fossils. The nearly complete Wankel T-rex he dug up in 1988, renamed the nation’s T-rex, will be the centerpiece of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History when it opens in 2019.

The fossils are important, but his true legacy is all the students he trained and inspired to carry on the scientific work, Cruzado said. A “natural and passionate teacher,” she said, he mentored 21 graduate students and co-taught many undergraduates in the honors class Origins. He has spoken to hundreds of school children on both dinosaurs and his own dyslexia, undiagnosed when he was growing up, which made it almost impossible to read.

One of the things he’s proudest of, Horner said, is that the Museum of the Rockies’ dinosaur hall is filled with original research by MSU’s own students.

At 69, Horner isn’t really retiring. He said he plans to teach at Chapman University in California in a new program that will take high school students with dyslexia from special-education classes and integrate them into college honors classes.

“They’re very smart,” Horner said of dyslexics, especially with anything spatial. “They just don’t read.”

And he is working with the University of Washington in Seattle, which is building a $100 million new museum.

“They want some dinosaurs in it,” he said. “I thought I’d help out.”

Today the Museum of the Rockies has 35,000 fossil specimens and it’s so full, there hasn’t been room for any more in years.

Earlier Thursday, the museum trustees held a ceremonial groundbreaking to celebrate raising $4 million in private donations to build a new storage building on the west side of the museum, facing the Bobcat Football stadium. Construction will start this summer and take about a year.

“I’m so grateful we’re finally going to get it done,” McKamey said, “so our curators can resume collecting. … It’s a big step for us.”

The 20,000-square-foot building is called the museum’s Curatorial Center for the Humanities. It has a fancy name because, McKamey said, “when we called it a storage building, no one would give money for it.”

The public won’t see exhibits in the new building. Instead most of the space, 13,000 square feet, will be used to store history, archaeology, Native American, art and photography collections. It will also house offices for the curators of history, art and photography, the registrar and staff.

That will free up some basement space for the paleontology collections. For some years, the museum has had to rent storage units — officials won’t say how many or where for security reasons.

Horner said paleontology will gain about 5,000 square feet of new space. But, he said, he already has enough fossils, stored outdoors, to fill the 5,000 square feet.

Cruzado read one of Horner’s quotes, “‘Montana is my home, and it was always my dream to have the best dinosaur museum in the world in this state.’” That’s what he accomplished, she said, wishing him the best of luck.

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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