GRAY, Tenn. - Jerry Jacene
, a name his
grandfather lifted from a medical chart while healing from wounds he
suffered in the Argonne Forest in World War I, is a rather unusual fellow, as his
ancestry might suggest.He
comes from a family that doesn't walk to traditional tunes. His
father, for example, was a professional prizefighter."Ranked fourth as a middleweight," says Jacene
with pride and a smile."He
once fought Jake La-Motta (of "Raging Bull" fame), and says he
threw the fight, just because Jake needed to get out some anger."
It sort of works out, then, that Jacene
is a natural choice to take charge of fossil digging at the big site near Gray.
Any fellow who has his
background and can pick up two Purple Hearts in Vietnam and the Vietnamese Cross for Gallantry because of a semi-AWOL wreck on his
way to party down in Saigon has got to have something extraordinary going on up top.He was in Vietnam during 1968-69, in some of the war's hottest fighting, serving as a radio operator with a forward observer team.
It also follows naturally that replicating fossils and understanding animals and creatures from millions of years ago would become a passion.Why not?He
has been dealing with the oddball and mysterious all his
Cowboys in the Wild West, who are not particularly fond of fossil hunters because it tends to mess up cattle range, called him a "bone digger."
You can, too.Jacene
likes that title just fine.It fits his
is accustomed to having to chart his
prizefighting father and mother dropped him off in foster care for upbringing.He
lived in so many foster homes in his
lost count."I went to 33 high schools before I graduated," he
recovered from his
wounds in Vietnam and two more serious injuries in 12 years of serving in the Military Police, Jacene
decided to try something tamer.He
met Jerry Knox, a paleontologist at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, who wowed him with critter bones from the past.It was love at the sight of his
first pile of bones, says Jacene
took up the formal study of paleontology in school for a couple of years, but decided that was moving a little slow. He
was more accustomed to hands-on.So, he
sought out bones in the West, worked for some museums in Wyoming, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Montana and Texas.He
picked up knowledge and the necessary skills of how to make molds of bones from scraps as a field associate at the Minnesota Science Museum
in St. Paul.And then with that experience, he
set out to see what he
could find in the dinosaur world.
At 55 years old, and even though he
never picked up a degree, he
is considered a top old bone man in the paleontology world.He's
so good, East Tennessee State University
, which has charge of the Gray site, hired his
Red Feather Fossil Excavations of Cookeville (now moved to Gray) to take charge of all fossil excavation at Gray, leaving the academics time to study and to write on the things Jacene finds. He
makes no bones about the bones at Gray."It is possible that this is the largest fossil site in the world.It is the most unusual in the United States," he
says."We could be here for years."
Anything that comes out of the ground, including earth itself, is under Jacene's charge now and has been for the past eight months when he
signed on for three years to oversee the site, teach the volunteers, reproduce replicas of what is found, and go around to schools showing and telling students about various jawbones of tapirs and the spine joints of alligators that are thousands of years old. His
silicone and resin molds - "I sculpt what is missing" - of the fossils are so real in appearance they have been used in books and illustrations.Some of his
Gray replicas include the skull of an alligator, complete with smile, a portion of a tapir brain that fossilized when debris filled the hole in its head and took on the markings of the inside of the skull, a saber tooth tiger and the portion of a bone from a short-faced bear, in which the only thing short about the animal was its name.The thing stood nearly 6 feet tall on all fours. Jacene
says the most important finds have been portions of two red pandas and two different species of weasel.The pandas have everyone in the fossil world a little swimmy-headed.Jacene
says there are only three known red pandas to have been found in the United States - and two of them are in Gray.
"Our pandas are older than the one found in Washington State.That means (to us) that Gray may have been the site where they originated." In his spare time, Jacene is resident paleontologist at the Dinosaur Walk in Pigeon Forge and the resident paleontologist and field director at the Makoshika Dinosaur Museum in Glendive, Mont., where he works on 32,000 acres. He
mentor Knox at Tennessee Tech have also formed Falling Waters Paleontology Reproduction Inc.
, in Cookeville.They collect pieces and scraps of bones and finish them out so scientists can see what the original femur, hip socket, skull, etc., resemble before they lecture or write on bones of the epochs. Jacene
has also been in charge of dinosaur digs in China, but says he
prefers American digs and may have found the site of all sites here in East Tennessee.
As Gray site foreman, he
is in charge of all the excavation that is taking place.He
runs the lab at the site and is working with the volunteers who will eventually play an important role in the Gray museum that is under way now just in front of the four-acre digging site.
"This is truly an unbelievable site," says Jacene
...Maybe for Jacene working at Gray is a little like his family.
Nobody in his
family can explain what his
grandfather saw or heard in the name, "Jacene," since the original family name was the Italian Janiro.His
grandfather was from Messina, Italy, and fought with the Americans in the Argonne Forest where he
was severely wounded.
, with Red Feather Fossil Excavations, holds a mold he
made from a skull found at the Gray
Fossil Site in Gray, Tenn.