Wyoming Tales: T. Rex at Fifty

April 11, 1964 was windy at the University. Of course, in Laramie, Wyoming it’s generally ALWAYS windy.

I was bundled into my dress jacket, and was wind chilled by it all. Just like the dedication of the Lincoln Monument up top of what was then US 30, “The Lincoln Highway” and is now Interstate 80 at its highest point, the “tarp” for the “unveiling” had managed to form a sort of surrealist windbreaker/inner tube installation effect:

Wyoming T Rex  dedication april 11 1964

T. Rex in Poncho (Not sure whether real or Sears poncho)
Click to enlARGE

This was about the year that Dick Cheney decided to scream and yell at my brother and I. (“Once a Dick, Always a Dick,” 22 December 2008.) But that day was the culmination of Wyoming’s “Citizen of the Century”s career.

As a professor emeritus, the éminence grise of Wyoming geology “Doc” Knight decided to complete one last major project, and he had his little tin shack next to what is now Knight Hall, banging away on copper plates to produce the pebbled skin of the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Picture1

The temporary shack where Doc Knight
hammered out his T. Rex. I got to go inside.

The Wyoming State Historical Society notes:

Samuel H. Knight, geologist, educator and the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center’s “Wyoming Citizen of the Century,” was born July 31, 1892, to Wilbur and Emma Howell Knight. The Knight family moved to Laramie, Wyo. in 1893, when Wilbur was hired as a professor of geology at the university.

samknightandstudents

Dr. Sam Knight and students

Wilbur Knight died unexpectedly of a burst appendix in 1903. Four years later, Samuel began studying at the University of Wyoming and received his bachelor’s degree in 1913. He then attended Columbia University in New York from 1914-1916, where he earned his doctorate in geology.

Knight returned to the University of Wyoming (UW) in 1916 as an associate professor of geology and curator of the geological museum, but the outbreak of World War I interrupted his teaching plans. Beginning in 1917, Knight served as a first lieutenant in U. S. Army intelligence. During the war, he surveyed battlefield terrain and natural geologic boundaries in various places in Europe with his former professor from Columbia University, Douglas W. Johnson. In 1918 and 1919, Knight toured Wyoming in an army tank, giving rides to anyone who purchased war bonds.

After the war, he returned to UW and became head of the geology department, a post which he held until he retired in 1963…

T._rex_birthday

What I stumbled onto on the internets: “UW Museum Celebrates
Dinosaur Statue Anniversary Friday and Saturday”

OK: I’ve told the story before, but I might as well repeat it. My mother did poorly on her first midterm in Geology. This is when I was in Kindergarten. (’61.)

So, she was a great believer in mnemonic devices – ‘Idiot crutches’ or absurd notions to use to remember an abstract concept, like, say, the difference in fractions between the numerator and the denominator is that the DOWNominator is below. Or, the old caving notion: when the mites go up, the tights go down. Stalagmites go UP, stalactites hang down. Or, one that I made up for spelling: “If you misspell ‘misspell’ Miss Pell will be angry with you.”)

And she used flash cards. So, she made up mnemonics and flash cards, and I would hold them (the latter) up, and she would read the question and then give the answer, and I would see if it was right or wrong by reading the back. So, I picked up a goodly chunk of Introduction to Geology by osmosis, more or less. Igneous. Sedimentary. Metamorphic.

mom + hart 1956

Author drooling in the Laramie Mountains, 1956

And, lo, her final was EXCELLENT and Doc Knight commented that it really was an impressive improvement, and she told him that she had to credit her son with helping her do it. And so Doc Knight said he wanted to meet me. And so he did.*

[I have always been of the opinion that it was more a testament to my mother's skill at exaggeration than from any accomplishment on my part. I just held up the cards, man.]

Socrates (detail) by Raphael

He gave me one piece of advice that I still remember: “If you’re going to live out in the West, you’d better learn to like rocks. Because that’s pretty much all we have.”

Now, this would be second grade for me, and it turned out that the Geology courses my mom took were some of the last that Doc Knight ever taught. And then, I actually met him in that temporary tin hut where he was putting together the T. Rex in the year after his retirement.

laramie wyo house

Our house today: We put up the basketball hoop and converted
the garage into a den. Still has a picket fence.

And so, mom and dad and brother and I went to see the Dedication. It was windy and biting cold. Overcast and then patchy clouds, I seem to recall.

The ground was still damp from recent melted snow in the seating area that they put down plywood so the chairs wouldn’t sink into the sod.

The crowd never got a lot larger, maybe 40 at peak.

And Doc Knight explained that he made it of copper so that the natural weathering process would turn it to its proper color.

laramie mountains

The Laramie Mountains today

He had created pebbled skin, using a ball-peen hammerhead on copper. He even pounded out a piece for me – a one-inch by three-inch strip of pounded copper — which I kept in my official personal scrapbook — the one with the birthday cards, autographs, report cards, etc.

For several years, we would go into that hall closet and pull out that scrapbook, and my piece of the Tyrannosaurus personally hammered out by Doc Knight was the Crown Jewel.

So the thing was dedicated and the black tarp chased down and corralled when the cutting wind grabbed it and tried to take off with it.

the winds of time

The Winds of Time

Comments were short (thank goodness), the unveiling was a mere formality, and the applause was whisked Eastward by the biting Westerly. The crowd dispersed rapidly. It was one of those Wyoming winds that will find any chink in your armor, no matter how small, and then chill you to the bone.

The project was over, the ceremony was completed, and the T. Rex was left to mother nature to complete the process with patina.

Institutional Memory failed, however, and, as you can see, some numnuts said “HEY! The T. Rex is turning green! Let’s clean him!”

And so they did. Or, rather, UNdid.

Picture3

The “cleaned” statue of Nowadaze

And this: at the time, the notion of “pebbled skin” was somewhat controversial and newfangled.

And geology — as J. Harlen Bretz learned – is not noted for its radicalism.

Remember: the president of the National Geological Society, etc. thought that John Muir’s notions about glaciation were idiotic. And then, atop the mountain NAMED after him, the first glacier in the lower 48 was discovered and confirmed on Mount Whitney.

Dr. Knight was one of those who believed that dinosaurs had pebbled skin, and NOT scales, as had been theorized about them going back to Medaeval dragon lore. This was not a given, however, and a few years later, a fossil find that preserved skin texture proved the theory correct. So, in a sense, the Samuel H. Knight Tyrannosaurus Rex is a prophecy fulfilled, a theory vindicated.

Sam Knight in 1916, the year he began teaching at UW. AHC photo. - See more at: http://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/samuel-h-knight#sthash.Iyly2tgO.dpuf

Sam Knight in 1916, the year he
began teaching at UW. AHC photo. 

This was just as Plate Tectonics was slamming into the world of geology, and really, a couple of years later: 66-67.

Doc Knight was a helluva geologist, though. Using the Sherman Peneplain – the “Gangplank”– between Laramie and Cheyenne, he saw the connection between the limestone and sandstone seabed of the midwest and the formation of the Rocky Mountains, a geological event which he named for his hometown, the “Laramide Orogeny,” which is the geological textbook term for it. (The gangplank is the only spot on the face of the Rockies that reveals the transition between the plains and the mountains.)

 Some have noted that there is a place in Wyoming that seems to have been at a loss for place names. Jacques Laramie, or La Raimee, or Laramee, etc. was a mountain man, who covered a big part of the country named after him. Where he was from and what became of him remain a mystery. But the name is certainly celebrated.

Laramie, Wyoming sits on the Laramie Plains at the foot of the Laramie Mountains. The confluence of the Little Laramie and the Big Laramie occurs above town, where the Laramie River runs through it.

laramie river

The Laramie River, as it flows past the site of old Fort Laramie (Wikipedia)

At the north end of the Valley, Mount Laramie dominates formerly with its formerly permanent white cap. Now, the smog pretty much obscures it.

Laramie Peak

Laramie Peak — NOT in the Laramie Mountains

So, just to really screw with your heads, however, Fort Laramie is up near Casper. And Laramie County is where Cheyenne is located.

Laramie is located in Albany County. Laramie County (Cheyenne) is prefix “2″ on Wyoming plates. Albany County (Laramie) is “5.”

Doc Knight’s car had prefix 5 Wyoming plates.

Anyway, that was the tale. I’m about a week late, but April 11 was the Banzai Charge Up 1040 Hill, and if you’ve ever been through one of those, there’s no time for nostalgia and rummaging in old photo albums.

Picture2

Laramie Raptor Rex Recently Reduxed

And that piece of copper? The T. Rex skin?

University of Wyoming T Rex Dr. Samuel H Knight

Click to enlarge

Vanished during the Great Kansas Hejira of 1969.

Never to be seen again.

We conclude with a hymn:

Cowboy wyoming sumbitch

Courage.

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7 responses to “Wyoming Tales: T. Rex at Fifty

  1. Pingback: Wyoming Tales: T. Rex at Fifty | The Moderate Voice

  2. Jack Wilson

    Great Story! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Jack Wilson

    And Cheney, having nothing else to scream about, re-entered his stygian Chamber Of Gloom.

    Comedy gold right there. Surprised he didn’t tell you to keep off his lawn!