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Front Page » January 12, 2006 » Carbon Senior Scene » A Man for the Ages
Published 3,150 days ago

A Man for the Ages


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By TOM McCOURT
Sun Advocate reporter

Don Burge in his mountain man regalia.

A recent magazine article called Don Burge a Renaissance man. He is described as a man of science and art who lives life to the fullest. It is true. He has left his mark everywhere in Eastern Utah.

Burge has lived in Price for 46 of his 71 years. Born in Hollywood, Calif., he grew up in Monrovia, a suburb of Los Angeles. Even as a boy, he was ill suited for the urban sprawl and freeway clutter of California. His heart was in the wide, open spaces.

His father owned an automobile dealership next door to the L.A. County Museum, and as a young man, he spent many long hours standing before the exhibits in one of the nations largest and best museums. A passion for natural history was kindled at an early age, but his family wanted him to be a medical doctor.

As a dutiful son, Burge began his college career at the University of Southern California in pre-med. He tried hard, but his heart just wasn't in it. The brilliant mineral displays and dusty bones of the L.A. County Museum kept calling him back. Finally, he surrendered to his passions and changed his college major to geology. He graduated with a degree in physical geology in 1956, at the age of 22. He worked one summer doing fieldwork for Standard Oil.

Burge assembling dinosaurs in the old CEU Museum.

In 1956, the year he graduated from USC, Burge was awarded the George Hansen award at BYU. Though raised a Methodist, Burge had become acquainted with Mormons and Utah through the Boy Scout program in Los Angeles. Receiving the George Hansen award allowed him to enter graduate school at BYU. He graduated in 1959 with a Master's degree in mineralogy. His master's thesis was on the economic geology of the Silver Lake mining district in American Fork Canyon.

While at BYU, he met Sherril Johnson. She was born in Prescott, Ariz. and raised in Phoenix. She has said that she was attracted to the young geologist because he had a humble, "real people" air about him. She first noticed him when he stood on the stage to receive the George Hansen award without a coat and tie, a major social faux pas for the times. They were married in January 1957.

Burge worked for the H.E. Roberts Company at Topaz Mountain while attending BYU. After graduation, he got a job in Phoenix with Sam Turner and Associates, a geo-physics company. He worked in Arizona for one year as a ground water geologist.

While working in Arizona, Burge saw an advertisement for a teaching position at Carbon College, soon to be known as the College of Eastern Utah. The school was searching for someone to teach math, geology, and physics. He filled out an application and offered his services.

The young couple moved to Price in the fall of 1959. Sherril left her family and a good job and in Phoenix, and she cried for two weeks. She saw Price as the wild and wooly west in a vacuum of wilderness. She changed her mind quickly as the got to know the people and the area. She says she wouldn't want to live anywhere else now.

The young couple were in Price for only a few months when Don fell in with a rough and rowdy group of local rock hounds. "They were the greatest bunch of guys," he remembers fondly. The group called themselves the Castle Valley Gem Society. Soon, Burge and his rock hounding friends were running wild and free over the vast, open landscapes of Eastern Utah. The area proved to be the highest degree of heaven for a mineralogist and a fossil hunter. "My first love was mineralogy," Burge says, "but slowly, my focus changed to fossils. Eastern Utah is the greatest dinosaur bone yard in the world."

Burge began teaching adult night classes at the college, and most of his rock hounding friends attended. He taught them geology, mineralogy, and paleontology. Two of his students were medical doctors, Dr. Quinn Whiting, and Dr. J. Eldon Dorman. They were men who would have a great influence on the young geologist and the paths he would follow. Burge and Dorman especially, became great friends. Over the years they inspired each other to ever-greater accomplishments.

Don Burge with some of his homemade primitive arrows.

Burge was the driving force in the creation of the CEU museum. The story goes that in 1960, after one of the evening classes at the college, Burge and several of the rock hounds were having coffee at a local eatery. On a whim, Burge suggested that they all search their basements, pool their mineral, fossil, and Indian artifact collections, and start a museum. It was the small stone that started an avalanche. One thing led to another, and the museum was opened in June 1961. That first museum was located in a single upstairs room of the city hall, recently vacated by the National Forest Service. Display cases for the fledgling museum came from the recently closed company stores at Kenilworth and Castle Gate, donated by the Independent Coal and Coke Company. Dr. Dorman had connections.

Slowly the museum began to evolve. In the early years, Carbon College was an extension of the University of Utah, and the university chartered the new museum. With the University charter, Burge was able to secure permits to dig at the Cleveland Lloyd Dinosaur quarry beginning in 1966. It was the beginning of a career in paleontology that would make him, and the small, rural college he championed, world-famous.

At first, Jim Jensen, a Utah expert who later achieved fame as a paleontologist for the Smithsonian, was hired to supervise putting together dinosaur skeletons. Burge learned all he could from Jensen, and it didn't take long for the young geologist to become a master of the craft. He studied every aspect of paleontology and became a world-recognized expert.

Many people in the community had a hand in helping the museum get started, but it was Burge who became curator of geology, and Dorman who became curator of archeology. Dorman too, had to go back to the books and learn about his new job.

Through his affiliation with the college, Burge was also appointed director of the museum. He served in that capacity for 25 years without any extra pay above his regular teaching salary at the college. After many years of bringing the museum and the college much fame and acclaim, his teaching workload was lightened so he could devote more time to his museum and dinosaur work. By 1971 the museum was bursting at the seams and was moved into the old gymnasium at the city hall.

Burge has never quit teaching. He allegedly retired in 2001, but he still teaches physical geology, mineralogy, and archery at the college because he loves it. Over the years he has taught at least 30 different subjects in fields as diverse as: math, art, geography, astronomy, history, physics, calculus, and metal casting, to name only a few. He also served as vice president of Academic Services during the 1998-99 school year.

In his spare time, his interests are wide and his hobbies varied. He has become an accomplished sculptor, musician, potter, marksman, hunter, astronomer, historian, scrimshaw expert, blacksmith, metal lathe operator, and archaeologist. He makes his own knives, flintlock rifles, telescopes, mountain man clothing, atlatls, tepees, powder horns, and Egyptian figurines. He served as an officer of the Buckhorn Bowmen's association and is a member of mountain man clubs and cowboy action shooting groups.

Burge makes his own primitive weapons in the traditional ways, and for years he held several world records for distance in primitive archery. He can shoot a homemade flint-tipped arrow between 300 and 400 yards. He has made every kind of wooden bow, going to original collections in museum basements to be sure he got it right.

He also made his own black powder cannon. The cannon is a copy of a Civil War original, and was made on a lathe with a 75 millimeter bore. It has a rifled barrel. Burge mounted the big gun on a homemade, Civil War era, wagon-wheeled gun carriage. He rebuilt the wagon wheels by heat shrinking the metal bands in exactly the same way a wheelwright of the 1850s would have done. For years he took his cannon to football games to inspire the home teams. He says he had a blast.

By the late 1980s, the College of Eastern Utah Prehistoric Museum had again outgrown its surroundings. Burge and Dorman went to work to secure a new building. As a part of the process, Burge took a sabbatical and went back to school to become certified as an archaeological conservator. He attended the University of Arizona and received his certificate in 1988. As a part of his studies, he toured several of the major museums and was able to view many "back room" collections. He says it was one of the highlights of his life.

In 1990 the new CEU Prehistoric Museum was opened to the public. When the college was unable to secure a new building, funding had been obtained to knock out some walls and add a large, new wing to the old gymnasium. The upstairs rooms and observation balcony were added too.

With his conservator credentials, Burge was able to have the museum accredited by the American Association of Museums. Only one other museum in Utah is accredited, and that is the Natural History Museum at the University of Utah. There are over 25,000 museums in the United States who are members of the museum association, but only 600 of them are accredited. The CEU Museum is one of the best in the nation.

Under Burge's directorship, the CEU Museum has assembled and sent to other museums hundreds of dinosaur skeletons. Bones and casts of bones from the CEU lab have found their way to at least 65 museums all over the world. Twenty copies of the CEU Columbian Mammoth have also been made and sold. And, excavations carried out by the museum have identified 9 previously unknown dinosaurs. Burge and CEU were instrumental in finding, identifying, and bringing to the world's attention, the famous Utahraptor.

Burge claims that there are only about 100 legitimate dinosaur species identified worldwide. "Some say as many as 1500 dinosaurs have been proven," he says. "But really, it's closer to 100 if you impose the proper standard." He says that it takes 30 to 35% of the bones to be able to reconstruct a skeleton by a mirror-image process - one side being the perfect opposite of the other. Using that criterion, he believes that CEU has identified ten percent of all the proven dinosaur species in the world.

Burge particularly likes firearms especially large ones like his homemade cannon.

The CEU professor has become world-renowned for his work. He has been honored and courted by some of the finest institutions in the world. He is friends with famous paleontologist Robert Barker, and world-acclaimed physicist, Steven Hawking. His wife, Sherril, says that people would be amazed at the jobs and the money he has turned down to stay in Price, doing what he loves.

When asked why he stayed at CEU when he could have been rich and famous somewhere else, Burge only smiles. "I love Price and the small town atmosphere," he says. "I love the people and the area. I'm a child who never grew up. I love cowboys, pirates, and the great outdoors. We have all of those things here. Who would want to live anywhere else?"

In 2000, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt awarded Burge the Governor's Science Award. In 2004, he was awarded an honorary PhD by the University of Utah. But his biggest honor may have come in 1995 when a new species of dinosaur was named Gastonia burgei, to honor him and rock hound Robert Gaston. With a smile, he describes the new dinosaur as a horned toad about the size of a cow.

In 1999, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in New York honored and roasted Burge as the world's oldest living fossil. They even got him to wear a tuxedo, something the local folks have never been able to do. He might be an old fossil, but he is far from fossilized.

He recently took a trip to Egypt with his son, Steve, and there, true to form, he was able to read Egyptian hieroglyphics directly from the monuments. Not surprisingly, he has taught himself to read the ancient glyphs. He keeps a stack of books by his bed, written in the ancient, hieroglyphic texts.

What's next? "It's time to build a new museum," he says with a smile. "The old one is too small. We have 650,000 items in storage. It's time to expand."


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January 12, 2006
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