[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Jack Horner: An Intellectual Autobiography

John R. "Jack" Horner
Regents Professor of Paleontology
(with Celeste Horner)

Breakthrough event

As a youth, I was an introvert. I was extremely shy and deathly afraid of having to speak in front of an audience of any size. But in 1979, I received a letter from Philadelphia inviting me to give a lecture on my dinosaur discoveries to the American Philosophical Society, the organization founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743. This meant that I would speak in Philosophical Hall, a building attached to Independence Hall, where not only Benjamin Franklin had spoken, but also America's first paleontologist, Joseph Leidy, and his student and successor, Edward Drinker Cope. It was an invitation that I could not turn down, even though I knew I might be too afraid to speak. For nearly a month I labored over my speech, writing it out in large letters on a piece of typing paper. I read it over and over again, hoping that I would remember enough so that when I attempted to read it, I wouldn't stumble or stutter, or get lost.

After I was introduced, I shuffled up to the podium, looked out at the audience, and nearly passed out. I looked down at my speech, and began my mumbling and awkwardly slow delivery, trying not to miss a word. About 10 minutes into my speech, a venerable old gentleman sitting in the front row of the audience stood up and rapped his cane on the podium. "Mr. Horner!" he bellowed, halting my miserable performance. "Get rid of your paper and settle down. Just tell us what you've found and what you think it means. We're interested in what you have to say."

For a moment, I was thunder-struck. I stood there petrified. Then I stepped away from the podium and told the audience what I'd found and what I thought it meant. That was the beginning of what has become a very long speaking career, and not since that day have I attempted to read a speech or use notes.

That day was a big breakthrough for me because I suffered from a lack of confidence due to a learning problem. It's called dyslexia. It's a word that, ironically, most of us who have it can't spell or pronounce, but maybe that's the point. I wasn't diagnosed until well after I had reached adulthood, had struggled through school being considered lazy, dumb, and perhaps even retarded, and had flunked out of college seven times. Most people expected I'd wind up working at a service station, or if I was really lucky, I might get to drive a truck at my father's gravel plant. Nevertheless, I guess I've always found low expectations rather liberating. Disparaging assessments just fired my determination.

Growing up

My mother, Miriam Whitted, was born and raised in Virginia and had met my father while he was in the Navy stationed in Virginia Beach. Mother had gone to a finishing school, and had it in mind to be a good Southern wife. Her parents were shocked when she married a Montanan and moved from the South to the wilds of Shelby, Montana, then a hub of gambling and prostitution.

I was born just after World War II, and at the time there were precious few places to live in any town, and Shelby was no exception. My father, John Horner, and his business partner had started a gravel business on the banks of the Marias River. Our first family home for the summer of 1946 was a canvas tent right on the premises. The gravel crusher made a tremendous racket, but Mother said I only cried when it shut down and the noise stopped. Father kept a bull snake in the tent to control mice and other critters. Rocks and reptiles were part of my life from the start.

By winter, we had moved to town to live in a tourist cabin--what nowadays would be called a motel room--with a small kitchenette, bedroom, and bath. Over the following years, we moved a couple times more as Father's business grew, and eventually we moved into a nice brick house on the side of a hill overlooking town. Although Mother was a typical housewife, and performed her daily housework and gardening, she was very adventurous and liked to take her two boys on trips. We traveled all over Montana and southern Alberta.

I found my first dinosaur bone at the age of eight during a fossil-hunting trip with my father. Mother supported my interest by driving me to pretty much all of my subsequent fossil-finding destinations. Mother loved to travel, and wanted more than anything to see the world.

Kindergarten through eighth grade was extremely difficult for me because my progress in reading, writing, and mathematics was excruciatingly slow. I would never stand to read out loud in class, even if the teachers threatened to give me failing grades. The joke was that I only carried schoolbooks to ballast my lanky adolescent body against the strong winds of highline Montana. Eventually, I managed to graduate high school, but just barely, having received Ds in all required classes, including English, in which my grade was a D minus, minus, minus. The teacher told me that this was essentially an F, but that he never wanted to see me again. That was indeed the last time I saw him, but I did send him a copy of my first book!

There was, however, one area of school besides P.E. in which I excelled: science projects. After an inauspicious beginning when, while tinkering with a chemistry set as a boy, I generated an explosion which blew out the windows of my parents' basement, I went on to win several regional high school science fairs. My first project was a rocket fueled by zinc and sulfur. I launched it from the airport in front of a group of spectators and it zoomed several thousand feet into the air. The next year, I made a large Van de Graff generator, and then a Tesla coil.

For my senior project, I made an exhibit on dinosaur fossils comparing the dinosaurs of Montana with those of Alberta. It was an ambitious project that caught the eye of one of the judges at Montana State University in Missoula where the state fair was held. The judge was a geology professor, and he informally invited me to come to Montana State University and major in geology. I couldn't bear to tell him that my grades were so poor that I might not even graduate from high school.

Amazingly, and to the complete surprise of my parents, I did manage to graduate from high school on time, even though I had average grades below D. Fortunately for me, at the time, all that was needed to enter a college or university in Montana was a high school diploma. So in the fall of 1964, I enrolled at Montana State University in Missoula, majoring in geology. By the time the university changed its name to the University of Montana in 1965, I would flunk out and get drafted by the United States Marine Corps.

At the end of 1966, I was on my way to Vietnam, where I spent 14 months as a Recon Marine. To this day, I have no idea whether I was drafted into the Marines because of low test scores, or if it was just bad luck, but in the end I was happy to have been a Recon Marine because we had an elite status that few enlisted military ever achieve. I was able to use a skill in which I was quite competent: swimming and scuba diving. I was Marine Corps Special Forces, and people up the chain of command watched out for us. I was very fortunate. The Vietnam experience was both good for me, in the sense that I "grew up" and got a world perspective, and it was bad because I was witness to the atrocities of that particular war. It's an indescribable etching in my memory, and to this day provides occasional lingering symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. I kept sane during those trying times in the jungle with the project of polishing a mirror for a telescope I was building back home.

After my tour of duty in 1968, I made a brief and unsuccessful foray into the study of astrophysics at Caltech. I was into fast cars at the time, and when Caltech didn't work out, I climbed in my Shelby Mustang and burned rubber back to Montana. I re-entered the University of Montana, and began where I left off, with a GPA of 0.06. Needless to say, I didn't fare well, and began a series of failed quarters where Dean of Students Richard Solberg would send me my "pink slip." Fortunately I had an advisor named James Peterson who believed I wasn't lazy or retarded, and he wrote letters of support for my quarterly returns to school. He had to write five such letters. I didn't finish college, but did take all the geology and zoology courses that I thought would pertain to paleontology. I also took a few courses in archaeology, microbiology, and even attempted English, but failed. When I left the University I believed I was as good a geologist and paleontologist as any other student at the doctoral level. I had even completed a thesis of sorts, and eventually published three papers from the data. It wasn't about dinosaurs, but concerned the paleontology and geology of a stratum containing 300-million-year-old fish from Central Montana.

My goal in life was simple: I wanted to be a dinosaur paleontologist and make some kind of contribution to the field of paleontology that would help our understanding of dinosaurs as living creatures. To accomplish this I knew I needed a job in a museum, but I also realized that with my college grades and no degree, I might not ever get such a job. I made a living driving an 18-wheeler for a while.

Paleontology career

It was 1973 when I "finished" college, and that event just happened to coincide with the time my father was ready to retire from his sand and gravel business in Shelby. He sold his business to my brother Jim and me for a good price, and I did my best to learn to deal with heavy equipment. Jim was trained in engine mechanics, and wanted to be a sand and gravel businessman. I was trained in geology and wanted to be a paleontologist. For a year and a half I worked with my brother driving concrete trucks and Caterpillar tractors, but all the while, I dreamed of being a paleontologist. On weekends, I drove 70 miles to the little town of Rudyard where my friend Bob Makela taught high school, and he and I would go out dinosaur hunting. It was never quite enough, so I began writing letters to every museum in the English speaking world asking if they had any jobs open for anyone ranging from a technician to a director.

A few months later, I got three responses. One open position was that of a lowly technician at Princeton University's Natural History Museum. One was for a head technician job at the Los Angeles County Museum. Another was for a research assistant at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. I applied for all three, got interviews at each, and was offered all three. I made my decision not on the basis of rank or pay, but on where I'd rather live. I decided that L.A. and Toronto were too large for my taste, and that Princeton would be perfect, even though it was the lowest paying job. It was a paleontology position in a museum, and that was all that mattered. In 1975, my first wife Lee and I packed up our baby son Jason, and drove a U-Haul to Princeton, New Jersey. It would become seven years of culture shock for me, but home for both Lee and Jason.

Dr. Donald Baird was my supervisor in Princeton, and he, as the Director, and I the technician, made up the entire staff of the museum. Together, we made exhibits and worked on research projects. Two years after being hired as a technician, Don saw my potential as a research scientist and promoted me to research assistant. Two years later, I'd be in charge of my own research projects, with funding from the National Science Foundation. Although I had written the successful NSF grants, I had not been allowed to sign the grants on account of my lacking a PhD. As far as the geology department was concerned, however, I was a contributing paleontologist with scientific publications and grants, and was a full member of their research faculty.

In about 1976, a year or so after arriving at Princeton, I saw a sign on campus that was clearly aimed at getting the attention of people like myself. In large letters it asked a few pointed questions like, "Is reading difficult?" "Would you rather watch a movie than read a book?" "Would you rather make a phone call than write or read a letter?" and several other questions that I subconsciously answered affirmatively. At the bottom of this sign, it said that if you answered yes to these questions, you should go to such and such office, and someone would evaluate your learning abilities. The offer was made to Princeton University students, and although I wasn't enrolled, I couldn't possibly pass up an opportunity to find out why reading and memorizing was so difficult. I went to the office and argued to have them test me. Lo and behold! I was diagnosed with some form or another of dyslexia! The diagnosis didn't make reading any easier, but at least it provided an explanation as to why I would probably never be able to pass even a simple college class, at least without having extraordinarily long periods of time to read and comprehend.

In 1978, when I was still employed by Princeton University, but was back in Montana for summer field work, I was fortunate to meet Marion Brandvold of Bynum./1/ My friend Bob Makela and I had stopped by Marion's rock shop to identify some fossil bones she and her family had collected some time earlier. As we quickly observed, the bones were parts of the skeleton of an adult duck-billed dinosaur. As we were leaving the store, Marion showed us two small scraps of bone she had over in her house. The bones were parts of a baby duck-billed dinosaur, one of the smallest examples I'd ever laid eyes on. When we examined the other bones in her house we discovered that she had parts of four baby skeletons, and when we arranged to excavate the remaining specimens for Princeton University, we discovered parts of 15 babies, and the first evidence that dinosaurs cared for their young. It was a major discovery--one that would help transform the way in which dinosaurs are envisioned. I published these findings in Nature in 1979.

A year later, my National Science Foundation sponsored expedition would discover the first dinosaur egg clutches in North America, and evidence of colonial nesting among dinosaurs. The site where all these new specimens and information was being discovered was christened Egg Mountain. It's near Choteau, Montana. It would continue to produce important discoveries for another 20 years.

In 1982, Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies recruited me. I was able to return to my home state and build a world-class dinosaur research program. We've made numerous further discoveries, named new species of dinosaurs, and built one of the best dinosaur collections in the world. Now, Montana State University has a brand new PhD program in paleontology through the Department of Earth Sciences. My great satisfaction these days is the stimulating interaction with and seeing the success of my students.

Coping with dyslexia

To this day, I struggle with the effects of dyslexia. It takes me a long time to read things, so it's an ongoing endeavor to become as well-read as I would ideally like to be. Self-paced learning is a strategy that helps me cope. Audio books are also a very helpful technology.

My first publications were traumatic. I was afraid to even attempt to write something that would go to an editor. I had plenty of data, so I wasn't fearful of critical review, but I had apprehension about people seeing how little I actually knew of the English language. It's a phobia I still live with. After two junior authorships, I wrote three papers on my own, and each was published: one in the Journal of Paleontology, and two in the British journal Nature. I discovered that editors would forgive my writing errors and fix them as long as the science was solid. Writing is still very difficult for me, and I would always rather a more fluent co-author did the actual writing. I know what I can do and what I can't do, and for the things I can't do, I try to find someone to help. I think that's really important, and certainly something I stress to people like myself. We must be able to admit that we need help where we do need it.

Not having a PhD has sometimes been an obstacle. When I first came to MSU, I was told that on account of not having a PhD, I would not be able to sign my own NSF grants, teach classes, or have graduate students. The rule enforcers were as stringent at MSU as they had been at Princeton. This was clearly creating a roadblock in my attempt to reach the level I desired. But good fortune was on my side, and a new National Science Foundation program, the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) had just been implemented at Montana State. Mick Hager, the director of the Museum of the Rockies at that time, encouraged me to write an EPSCoR grant that he would co-sign.

It was a relatively small grant, but it was successful, and opened both the MSU and NSF doors so that I could write and sign my own proposals. For the next 12 years, I would have consistent NSF funding. And with the grants came money for graduate students, and with the graduate students came the need to teach classes. In 1993, I had 18 graduate students working virtually all over Montana and Northern Wyoming. Montana State University had become a paleontology Mecca; the largest dinosaur research program in the United States. Today, we still have a very large field and laboratory research program that is world-class.

I don't want people to think that I encourage my undergraduate and graduate students to avoid reading books, writing papers, or getting college degrees, because I don't. I do, however, encourage different methods of learning and thinking. I don't give memory tests; I give exams where both critical and synthetic thinking are necessary. I give plenty of reading (or books on tape) assignments, and have extremely high expectations of student essays and other written documents. Nearly all of my students are either honors students, or graduate students in paleontology, which bears the prerequisite of being competent readers and writers. I believe strongly in high academic standards, but I am willing to offer my students flexibility in meeting them.

Students describe me as a Socratic teacher in that I seldom give a direct answer to questions, but rather answer with other questions. Usually the questions that I ask have no particular answer anyway, and the exercise, or ordeal, depending on the student's outlook, is intended to reveal rather than test. I teach the way I learn.


When people ask me who my mentors were, or to what I attribute my success, I usually cite not having had any expectation barriers. But, as I think more about it, it's more realistically about family and teachers. My mother in particular, and some teachers were very supportive and made paths for me while others created barriers that I had to learn to get over and around. Both were equally important.

My father had a complex influence on me. His persistence about education was both a trial and source of inspiration. He had been a good student, and had excelled in math and physics, and had even won a scholarship when he graduated from Shelby High. Unfortunately, he graduated during the Depression era. My grandfather had observed plenty of PhDs reduced to menial work, so he told my father that college was a waste of time. He lent him $500 to buy a truck so he could go into the trucking business.

My father spent his whole life wishing he'd gone to college instead of buying that truck. But, since he didn't, he was going to make damn sure that I went to college. And he decided that he could get me going early on college math and physics. When I was in the fourth grade, Dad tried to teach me algebra. At that time in my life, I couldn't even read. I couldn't absorb those lessons and even failed high school algebra. My father would just shake his head and cuss at me whenever I'd come home with my report card. He said I was wasting my future by not taking advantage of learning all that I could. Actually, I was always learning all that I could; it just wasn't as much as my dad or teachers expected.

In reality, I wanted more than anything to learn algebra, and to make my father proud. I finally saw Dad's pride in me on my 40th birthday, the day I received an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Montana, and received news that I had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, an award the press referred to as a "genius grant." Father never said anything about my being lazy after that day, although he remained skeptical as to whether paleontology was a useful endeavor in life. He had always thought it better to mine gold, as he did on occasion, than dig for dinosaur bones, because gold was at least worth something.

My father and mother passed away within six months of each other in 2000. As far as I could tell, neither had had any regrets about life. When Dad had retired from the sand and gravel business in 1973, he spent two more years in Shelby helping Jim and I get the business started, and then in 1975, he left town for good. He packed up Mother and my high-school age sister, Rosemary, and moved to Missoula to realize his longtime dream of getting some college education. He entered the University of Montana as a freshman. Father and Mother fondly remembered that some of their best years ever were spent in married student housing in Missoula. They made a lot of life-long friendships with college-age kids. Dad took a bunch of them hunting and fishing. Dad enrolled in a physics course and Mom attended with him as his secretary. She dutifully transcribed notes on introductory mechanics, although she would teasingly complain that she didn't care one bit about cannon balls or their trajectories.

Mother's dreams had been fulfilled during the time she lived in Missoula as well, as she and father took several trips and cruises to other countries. They visited Egypt, Morocco, Australia, and several islands of the Caribbean. Father had gone to college, and Mother had gotten to see the world.

To the end of their lives, Mom and Dad retained a love of learning that I admire and share. Mom took up painting and computers for doing family genealogy. Dad had his customary spot on the couch where he would smoke his pipe and peruse the stack of books on the side table. I regret that they did not live to see me appointed Regents Professor, an honor bestowed upon me two years after their deaths. For it is only since their passing that I have come to understand fully the debts which I owe them. I have enjoyed success in life beyond even my most fanciful dreams as a boy in Shelby, a student at the University of Montana, and young proprietor of a sand and gravel business. Success, I think, must be measured by the standards one meets in achieving it. My father's high expectations, as severe and unreasonable as they sometimes seemed in the face of my mysterious disabilities, inspired me. But they might have been merely oppressive, or even destructive, without my mother's understanding and encouragement. From her, too, came a love of exploration and learning.

My parents were immensely pleased at my having contributed to our understanding of dinosaurs and the history of the planet. I am sure they would share my pride in my terrific staff, superb students, and the world-class dinosaur program I direct here in my home state. And I think they might be especially pleased at my having inspired some young people with learning differences by showing them what can be achieved by someone with a learning difference if one is persistent, cherishes the high expectations that measure success, and has the proper support and encouragement.


  1. Bynum is a very small [Montana] community between Choteau and Browning.[Back]

[The Montana Professor 14.2, Spring 2004 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Contents | Home