About a year before Burpee Museum of Natural History staff and volunteers discovered Jane, the museum’s famed juvenile tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur, Scott Williams sat on a hill in Montana next to a giant fossilized rib bone and made a life-changing decision. Staring out across the Hell Creek rock formation, Williams thought of the mystery of what lay beneath the hardened earth, and he decided the lure of the hunt was too much to ignore. “I sat there and said, ‘This is what I wanted to do my whole life. ... Why am I a cop?’ ” Williams said.
About a year before Burpee Museum of Natural History staff and volunteers discovered Jane, the museum’s famed juvenile tyrannosaurus rex dinosaur, Scott Williams sat on a hill in Montana next to a giant fossilized rib bone and made a life-changing decision.
Staring out across the Hell Creek rock formation, Williams thought of the mystery of what lay beneath the hardened earth, and he decided the lure of the hunt was too much to ignore.
“I sat there and said, ‘This is what I wanted to do my whole life. ... Why am I a cop?’ ” Williams said.
Williams said he grew up at the museum, bringing fossils and things he would find on his grandparent’s farm in Stillman Valley to be identified as a kid and later volunteering as a teenager. When he came home from Montana, he vowed to get back to his roots.
He started volunteering again at Burpee, and the following summer Williams took two weeks from his job as sheriff’s deputy and went back to Hell Creek with the museum to crawl around in a several-mile area looking for pieces of dinosaur bone. By the end of the season, they discovered Jane.
It was the summer of 2001, a summer that would change the course of history at Burpee and Williams’ career.
By January 2003, Williams would be working full-time at the museum as the collections and exhibits manager and Jane’s skeletal remains would be sitting in the basement lab at Burpee awaiting her grand debut as Burpee’s very first dinosaur.
Jane opened in 2005. Before her, Williams said, the most exciting things the 67-year-old natural history museum had was a shrunken monkey head, a 14-foot American crocodile and vast bird collection. Oddities that people certainly enjoyed, he said, but hardly “wow”-factor material.
The museum and Williams didn’t stop after Jane. Hundreds of staff and volunteers kept returning to Hell Creek every summer and then to a new rock formation in Utah, as well.
Today, Williams, 34, and curator Mike Henderson are working on three dinosaurs — Homer, the triceratops who is 40 percent complete; Petey, another juvenile T. rex who is about 20 percent complete; and Buzz, the sauropod and newest addition to the Burpee family.
“I have a soft spot for the big, long neck dinosaurs, the ones who were the size of the house,” Williams said. “They were basically land whales. Some of the largest sauropods were 120 feet long and weighed 100 tons. ... I wanted one of those for the museum. I wanted something that was just going to shock and awe people.”
Buzz is just one of several dinosaurs that Burpee believes it will pull out of the ground in Utah and bring back for display in Rockford.
And by that time, Williams said, Burpee will have outgrown the addition that’s being built now and will need yet more exhibit space.
“Right now, Burpee is 40,000 square feet, that’s with office space and bathrooms and everything. With the addition and the traveling exhibit hall, we’re putting on another 15,000 to 20,000 square feet,” Williams explained. “It’s funny because when we were out working on the Utah site this year, I kept thinking about that scene in ‘Jaws’ when Sheriff Brody walks back in Quint’s boat and he says, ‘We’re going to need a bigger boat.’ That’s where were at. We’re going to need a bigger museum.”
The line from “Jaws” came easily to Williams, who calls himself “a pseudo-movie aficionado” with more than 300 movies on DVD and another 200 on old VHS tape.
“I’m a geek,” Williams said. “I collect comic books. I watch a lot of movies. I’m a big ‘Star Wars’ nut. I’m a big history buff, too. Put a history book down in front of me, and I’ll start reading it.”
Q&A with Scott Williams, collections and exhibits manager at the Burpee Museum of Natural History
Q. What is Burpee?
A. I’d like to think that the Burpee Museum of Natural History is a Rockford staple. Burpee museum has been here since 1942. The Burpee is really kind of a grassroots community museum. It was founded when people would start bringing their stuffed birds, their arrowheads, their fossils. It started as part of the (federal Works Progress Administration) project. For a very long time, the Burpee Museum was known fairly well by people in the Rockford area and surrounding communities. But after we found Jane, we started to be known by the rest of the museum community both nationally and internationally.
Q. What does a collection manager do?
A. It’s kind of funny because when people say collections manager or I say that to people, people think I’m the guy who goes around making sure you give your donations or else. And that’s not it at all. The collections manager is the guy who is in charge of all of the specimens. Any donation that comes in — whether it’s a sparrow that hits your window or an arrowhead that you find in your field or some fossil that your kid found — that comes to me and it gets put in the collection. If we have an exhibit, I’m the guy who gets the stuff out and makes sure it’s properly displayed. I’m also the guy who goes out and gets the stuff. I do my best to arrange the field trips. Obviously, one of the things we do is go out to Montana and do field work in Hell Creek, and we also started this new program in Utah. I’m the guy who writes up the permit requests, writes the permit reports and makes sure all of the T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted to make that stuff happen.
Q. Why do you do what you do?
I like the adventure part, following in the footsteps of the true Indiana Joneses, those early guys that I used to read about in books who in the late 1800s and early 1900s went out West when the West was unsettled or went to South America when no one else was doing it or went to up western Canada when there was hardly anybody living up there.
Q. Who or what inspires you?
A. You know, people talk about how I love media attention. I admit. I do. But what I do think, subconsciously maybe, is if I make big enough headlines, wherever my mother is she’ll see it and be proud of me. I was raised by my grandparents, so I call my grandmother my mother. She played a huge role in cultivating my interest in geology and paleontology and supporting me. She died in December 1999 — before we found Jane, before I left the sheriff’s department, before any of this happened. So every time I’m on something like the documentary that was done on Jane, it’s just one of those things — I hope she’s watching TV where ever she’s at, and I hope that she is proud.
Q. What is your stake in this community?
A. Rockford is one of those towns that aggravates me, and I love at the same time. A lot of people in Rockford don’t know the history. They don’t know how important this town was. A lot of people don’t know we were high up on Fidel Castro’s list during the Cuban Missile Crisis because if you take out Rockford, there are no screws, nuts or bolts to go around. Theodore Roosevelt came here three times — once as president and two other times after he was president. Rockford has a good history. I would say that’s my strongest connection. At the same time, you can’t live in the past. You have to move forward. I feel my role in my little neck of the woods at Burpee Museum is to help move forward and create a new history for Rockford.
Q. What will success look like in five years?
A. From the museum’s point of view, I think our success will be continuing our work out West. We do a lot of things well at Burpee — good educational programs, good outreach and tours. But to keep things alive, you have to keep moving forward. Right now, the way we’re moving forward is the stuff we’re doing out West. We’ve built a good track record of finding stuff in Montana and now Utah. When you find something important like this, (it) opens doors for you. It’s where grant opportunities and sponsorship opportunities come from. I’m hoping that what we do excites the people of Rockford enough to support another addition in five to 10 years and that we’ll have more than enough material to put together this awesome paleontology exhibit that will put anything that museums in Milwaukee, Minneapolis or Indianapolis have to shame.
Corina Curry can be reached at email@example.com or (815) 987-1371.
About Scott Williams
Name: Scott Allan Williams
Family: Raised by grandparents, Charles A. Williams, 79, and the late Beverley M. Williams.
Residence: Oregon, for 11 year.
Education: 1992 Stillman Valley High School graduate; 1997 graduate Police Training Institute Corrections Academy, 1999 Illinois State Police Academy for Local Law Enforcement, 2006 Rock Valley College graduate; enrolled in the geosciences program at Northern Illinois University.
Occupation: Collections and exhibits manager, Burpee Museum of Natural History; former deputy for the Ogle County Sheriff’s Office, 1996-2003.