“That one there, that you don’t have a label on, that is autenite,” Hubert Carroll, a retired postal worker and lifelong rock collector from Fort Dodge, Iowa, said Wednesday. He was talking to Mesalands Dinosaur Museum graduate research assistant Gretchen Gurtler about a fluorescent rock display.
“Autenite. Oh, OK,” Gurtler responded.
Gurtler has spent the last six months researching and classifying a massive collection of fossils and minerals donated to the college by another lifelong collector and friend of Carroll, Howard Shanks, a research physicist who donated his entire collection of artifacts to the college upon his death in April 2009.
Carroll said he traveled the country with Shanks on countless rock hunts over the years. Carroll stayed in Tucumcari Wednesday and Thursday to answer questions about Shanks’ artifacts before continuing to Glendale, Calif. to visit his son.
“I’m here to help them in any way that I can and answer any questions,” Carroll said.
A group of Mesalands Community College paleontology students and members of the museum’s Fossil Friends club took a 35-foot horse trailer and a full-size U-Haul truck to the Shanks family’s home in Nora Springs, Iowa to retrieve the first load of Shanks’ collection in March. Another group returned Dec. 7 to pick up another truckload of specimens from Shanks’ barn, which still contains a large number of pieces waiting to be retrieved.
Museum curator Axel Hungerbuehler estimated the Shanks collection to include between 15,000 and 22,000 individual specimens, including prehistoric fossils, minerals and crystals, collected over Howard Shanks’ 65-year rock collecting career.
Museum director Craig Currell said he first met Shanks in Tucson, Ariz. in 2001. Currell purchased two fossils from Shanks for the museum’s timeline display. Shanks later visited the dinosaur museum and Mesalands campus with Currell.
“He was pretty impressed, I guess. And then one day he called me and he said ‘Craig,’ and I said ‘You’re irrigated,’ and he said ‘Yeah. I need a home for my specimens. What would you do if I give you some of my best specimens from Pella (an Iowa town where Shanks specialized in fossil collecting)?’ and I said, ‘We would never sell them, and we wouldn’t use them for ashtrays, and our students would work on them and try to get them a good home and treat them with the respect that they deserve because they are one-of-a-kind in the world. Most fossils of these plants are in coal, and it’s not detailed and it’s crumbly and flaky and not good. These are just excellent for as old as that fossil is. It’s excellent,” Currell said.
Before Shanks’ death, he and his family decided to donate his entire collection to Mesalands.
“We could do anything with it that we wanted, so we told (Shanks’ family) that we would contact major universities and we have, and have given some to be put on exhibit with the understanding that he would get the credit for it, and then we can use what we want to in here to train and for students’ study aides, and then we are allowed to sell or trade. The small little boxes have a lot of little specimens, and we sell those and the money goes into the foundation, so it’s used for the museum and for scholarships,” Currell said. “It’s a good thing.”
Gurtler, who will work on the Shanks collection until May as a graduate school assignment from Texas Tech University, said the vast Shanks collection allows Mesalands paleontology students hands-on experience with specimens in their field and the chance to pursue individual research projects in a way no other associate’s degree program in the United States can.
“A paleobotanist would be able to tell you what you really have there,” Currell said. “That specimen I just showed you Gretchen’s working on at the lab table? The Smithsonian would die for that. But it’s here.”
Carroll said he was happy to see his friend’s collection going to educational purposes because Shanks was always passionate about passing his knowledge to others.
“He was a well-educated man. He never showed that. A kid would come up to him and bring a piece of marble out of the garden or something, and Howard would take the time to explain to him as much as he could of what the rock was. Then he’d go find a piece of something that was a little better that he could show, and then the kid could have it,” Carroll said. “I lost a very, very close friend when Howard passed. I was here when Howard first saw the museum after (Mesalands) bought two pieces and it was no surprise to me that they got this collection.”