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Dinosaur Scientist to Lecture, Inspired 'Jurassic Park' Character

Publication Date: 2007-03-28

Kay's Comment: I love success stories like this one! Bad grades in high school. Failed out of college seven times. Only college degrees are honorary. Inspite of having dyslexia, this dinosaur genius is now a respected scientist. John "Jack" Horner says: "For kids with dyslexia, inoculated in failure, Horner hopes his life is evidence to the contrary. Success, he said, has nothing to do with grades. The interest and the love of a field are what's important."

Even before he found his first dinosaur bone at 8, John "Jack" Horner knew exactly where he wanted to go in life.

Getting there was the problem.

When Horner visits Des Moines this weekend as part of the State Historical Museum's "Hatching the Past" exhibit, it will be as one of the most celebrated figures in paleontology, a professor, lecturer and the author or co-author of six books, and winner of a 1986 MacArthur "genius" grant.

He was also the model for Sam Neill's character in "Jurassic Park" and technical adviser for that movie and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park."

Not bad for a guy who got straight D's in high school, who flunked out of college seven times, and whose only academic degrees are honorary, thanks to a lifelong struggle with dyslexia.

"I wouldn't say I got straight D's," corrected Horner, 60, a Regents professor of paleontology at Montana State University. "I got a lot of F's, too. My average was right around a 1.0. I got one B in my whole life. That was in geometry. I'm very good with three-dimensional."

Horner's saving grace was science. Following his curiosity and his own timetable, he won most of the science fairs in his area.

"There are no limitations as to what you can do as far as discovery," he said. "I could do science projects at my own rate."

In the fall of 1964, despite his struggles in high school, Horner enrolled at the University of Montana, majoring in geology. He lasted less than a year, the first of six times he would officially flunk out of the university. (Along the way, he also made what he calls a "brief and unsuccessful foray" into the study of astrophysics at Caltech.)

Each time, he shook off the failure and went back.

"I liked what I was doing," Horner says simply. "I love learning stuff, I just don't learn it at the rate professors want you to learn it. Schools have time limits on everything, and I can't deal with time limits because I can't read fast enough. If I were in school today, I would still fail. I'd fail taking my own courses."

It wasn't until he was 30 and working as a technician at Princeton University's Natural History Museum that Horner finally learned he had dyslexia. By then, his focus was strictly on dinosaurs.

Just a few years after starting at Princeton, Horner was back in Montana for summer field work when he made the discovery that would launch his career - the first dinosaur (Maiasaura) egg clutches in North America, the first nested babies anywhere in the world and the first evidence that dinosaurs cared for their young.

A few years later, he was recruited to come home by Montana State University's Museum of the Rockies, where he has helped build a respected dinosaur research program and one of the largest dinosaur collections in the world.

Credited with the discovery - with his students - of a couple of dozen new species of dinosaurs, Horner has written several books that have helped transform the way both other paleontologists and the public think of the creatures.

In 2000, Horner made headlines again when he was credited with finding the world's largest Tyrannosaurus rex but says he's more interested in T. rex behavior than size. Although the dinosaurs are often portrayed as the greatest predators that ever lived, Horner believes they were probably more like hyenas than lions, a viewpoint not all paleontologists share.

"I get a lot of flak for that, but no one can produce any evidence to the contrary and that's what science is all about, evidence to the contrary," Horner said.

For kids with dyslexia, inoculated in failure, Horner hopes his life is evidence to the contrary. Success, he said, has nothing to do with grades. The interest and the love of a field are what's important.

Although reading is still the hardest thing he does, Horner said he's found a solution.

"I've come to the conclusion that if you do something no one else has done, you don't have to read very much, you can just write your own stuff," he says.

On his 40th birthday, Horner was finally awarded a college degree, an honorary doctorate of science from the University of Montana.

"The person that gave it to me was the guy who kicked me out of college seven times," he said. "That's sweet revenge if there's any at all."

Reporter Mary Challender can be reached at (515) 284-8470 or mchallender@dmreg.com


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