Foot Forward

by | 3.11.2009 at 9:01am
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Olsen (left), Lessa, with E. giganteus print, ca. 1970

Olsen (left), Lessa, with E. giganteus print, ca. 1970

In 1968, 14-year-old Paul Olsen of suburban Livingston, N.J., and his friend Tony Lessa heard that dinosaur tracks had been found in a nearby quarry. They raced over on their bikes.  ”I went ballistic,” Olsen recalls. Over the next few years, the boys uncovered and studied thousands of tracks and other fossils there, often working into the night.  It opened the world of science to Olsen; he went on to become one of the nation’s leading paleontologists. Now based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, he has studied mass extinctions worldwide, the effect of evolution on global carbon cycling, and last year was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Now, another sequel to the story:

Olsen and Lessa badly wanted the site preserved from development. As a lobbying ploy, Olsen made a fiberglass cast from the 200-million-year-old footprint of the dinosaur Eubrontes giganteus, and sent it to then president Richard Nixon. It worked: the site eventually became Walter Kidde Dinosaur Park, and the cast ended up stored at Nixon’s presidential library. This week the cast resurfaced–as a leading item in BIG!, a new National Archives exhibition of objects embodying the largeness of things American. “To tell the truth, I had forgotten all about it until the Archives called,” said Olsen. On March 11 he spoke at a special preview in Washington, along with acting archivist of the United States Adrienne Thomas. The cast sits near a 13-by-13-foot map of the Gettysburg Civil War battlefield; the size 22 sneakers of basketball great Shaquille O’Neal; and a special bathtub ordered to accommodate the brontosaurian bulk of 300–plus -pound president William Howard Taft.

Even in places like suburban New Jersey, “young people can absolutely still find stuff like this today,”  said Olsen. “There is an incredible amount of ground to cover, and most people spending any significant time at it are still very young amateurs.”

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