Friends at the ship

Jim and Lena Martin with Ozzie at the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead.

As I think back over my long life, I cherish the lasting friendships I’ve enjoyed with so many interesting and accomplished people. A number of them I met over the 33 years I spent creating and performing touring educational assembly programs for elementary schools. During those years I produced 10 different programs, and they all involved a great deal of research and travel. 

Perhaps my most extensive research came in preparation for my dinosaur program. It started with meeting Jack Horner at the science lab of Princeton University. He gave me my first dinosaur bone, a fist-sized vertebra from the tail of a duck-billed dinosaur. I passed the bone around to my school audiences, making sure the students washed their hands after the show.

I became interested in fossils, the remains of creatures that roamed our Earth millions of years ago. I got the word from Dr. David Parris, the executive director of the New Jersey State Museum, that he was rounding up people to volunteer as fossil diggers in southwestern South Dakota. My son Alan and I signed up and headed for the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City. And that is where we first met Dr. James E. Martin, who at the time was a professor of geology and paleontology at SDSM. And what a friendly, down-to-earth guy! That started a friendship which has lasted over 40 years.

After Jim gave us an orientation session, we headed south and set up camp near Maverick Junction, South Dakota. The next morning, we volunteers followed Big Jim into the fields. Alan and I ended up in a shallow coulee near Buffalo Gap. We started to dig in the geological layer called Pierre Shale, dated at 80 million years ago, toward the end of the age of dinosaurs. It wasn’t hard rock. It was a mixture of fine clay from volcanic ashfalls called bentonite and black shale.

On the first day, Alan and I found something that was not a rock. Jim stopped by and immediately identified the fossil. It was a vertebra from the tail of a sea reptile named mosasaur, an alligator-shaped critter that might have measured 30 feet in length. Jim congratulated us on our find and said, “Keep digging until you find more.

Alan and I dug for a week hoping we’d find the head or one of its paddle-like legs, but we only found about a half-dozen vertebrae. However, with the landowner’s permission, I now had fossils I could show students who attended my assembly shows.

This past week I had the pleasure of spending a couple of days with Jim and his wife Lena, whose ancestors were Cajuns from eastern Canada and settled in lower Louisiana. Lena’s first language was French, which served her well as an intercontinental flight attendant and later in a successful business career. 

They drove up here and we had such a great time! I took them to the Hjemkomst Center in Moorhead, which displays a Norwegian stave church and a perfect replica of the Gokstad Viking ship found near Sandefjord, Norway, in 1880. Later that day we had food and cake with three of my close friends, and enjoyed a tour of Barnhard Arts.

Jim Martin is presently the curator of paleontology and research professor with the University of Louisiana School of Geosciences. Back in 2016, Jim gave me a tour of the UL Geology Museum, and I met some of his students working on fossils in the lab. He has done a remarkable job of expanding the displays of prehistoric creatures.

Back at the School of Mines there is a building named after Jim, the James E. Martin Paleontology Research Laboratory. Jim has edited and authored five books and published over 100 scientific papers. In 2008 he was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.

I cherish my 40-year friendship with Jim Martin. In a Zoom session with my three sons, Eric asked Jim the most important thing he has found in his many years as a paleontologist. Jim smiled, put his arm around Lena and said, “My most important find is this lady right here.”

I close with some advice for younger readers.  Keep in touch with your friends. They are a part of your history, a blessing you will appreciate more and more as you grow older.


Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.

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