Who would have thought that studying with the Chinese language class at the West Windsor Senior Citizen’s Center would have led to fossil-collecting this past summer — in Montana? Ron LeMahieu and Dave Parris, both educated primarily in sciences, searched for dinosaurs and other fossils of the Cretaceous Period — in rocks about 70 million years old.
Parris, born in McPhersen, Kansas, was raised in an educational environment, the son of an archaeologist and a school teacher. His sister, an historian and a dean at Muskingum College, lives in Pittsburgh.
While still in school, Parris passed the civil service test and worked as a student trainee with the United State National Park Service. “I intended to be a park service scientist someday,” he says. Today, as curator of the New Jersey State Museum, he still maintains close ties to the park service personnel as the museum is a repository for specimens that come from the park.
Although Parris went on digs with his father, he developed his own interests in science, which led to a career in paleontology. “I enjoyed both biology and geology, and it seemed like the best way to split the interest,” he says.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in geology from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology and received a master’s degree in paleontology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. He also received a master’s in geology from Princeton University in 1970.
In 1971, Parris began working as a consultant at the New Jersey State Museum and became a science registrar the following year. A year later he became the assistant curator, and over the years he worked as an instructor for the Mercer County Association of Gifted and Talented Children and the Science Camp Laboratory for Gifted and Talented Children at Trenton State College. In 1985, he became curator of the museum. “It was all I ever wanted to be my whole life,” he says.
He and his wife, Susan, who he met while he was at Princeton, have three sons. William, 23, is a student at Princeton Child Development Institute. Daniel, 19, a graduate from High School North, is a student at Mercer Community College and works at Al’s Sunoco. Timothy, 13, is an eighth grade student at Community Middle School. Susan, who works at the Department of Addiction Services in Trenton, was born and raised in West Windsor. The couple lived in West Windsor for the first five years, bought a house in Ewing, and moved back to her family home in 1998.
Parris is also active with the Boys Scouts of America. Since 1985 he has been a merit badge counselor, teaching kids archaeology and helping them earn their badges.
A member of the former Penn’s Neck Environmental Impact Statement Roundtable Public Deliberative Advisory Council, he is now a member of the Princeton Junction Development Planning Advisory Group.
Parris has continued to study language at Mercer Community College, the College of New Jersey, and the West Windsor Senior Center. “I felt that I needed more foreign language, especially Spanish,” he says. “We study a lot of language and old literature and often there is nobody to translate.”
The idea for this summer’s trip began when Parris, as New Jersey State Museum curator, mentioned that he would be leading a fossil collecting expedition to the Elk Basin area. LeMahieu, a retired chemist, expressed interest and signed up as a non-traditional student.
The group stayed at the Yellowstone Bighorn Research Association, a geological training camp. For two weeks, LeMahieu and Parris prospected and quarried for fossils while experiencing a challenging terrain in the northern Rocky Mountains. They also visited the Weatherman Draw area, which is sacred to a number of Native American tribes and includes pictographs (rock paintings).
Parris was especially pleased that they were observant enough to find a tooth of a Cretaceous mammal, a furry creature that used to run around under the feet of dinosaurs.
For the past few years, Parris has led both the trip to the Rocky Mountains and a field course in South Dakota. “Dinosaurs in the Rocky Mountains,” a two-week trip is planned for July 18 to 29, 2005. Course cost is $1,"300 for registration including tuition, lodging, and meals. The Field Course in South Dakota is scheduled for August 1 to 12. The fees are $500 but do not include lodging and meals. Contact Parris for more information at 609-292-6330.