Solon’s Dinosaur Man
SOLON– He is a father of four and the father of a U.S. patented invention. A veteran Navy officer, he has flown in Dr. Tom Dooley’s helicopter and was on the last American ship to leave Vietnam after evacuating refugees from north to south as the Korean conflict wound down. He has schooled many on the mastery of industrial arts, from high school and college students to convicted prisoners. The product of his woodworking artistry can be seen in everything from funeral homes and library buildings to iconic rural barns and decorous churches.
But arguably the most recognized persona in the 82 years of Jack Neuzil’s life is that of Dinosaur Man.
His nearly 20 years of educating children on the nature of the prehistoric beasts are celebrated in the most recent exhibit in the display window at the Solon Public Library.
“Lost World: the Search for Dinosaurs,” crafted by window dresser Toni Russo, is a journey into the past, both archeological and human. The display is an offshoot of the library’s Summer Reading Program theme, “Dig into Reading,” and is dedicated to long-time Solon resident Neuzil, whose own history as educator, hands-craftsman and vicarious paleontologist is revealed alongside the many artifacts and fossils that bring the window to life.
Neuzil’s chronicle as Dinosaur Man begins more recently, about the time the movie “Jurassic Park” became a national phenomenon in 1993.
“I was watching my nieces and nephews cutting out figures of dinosaurs from a coloring book, and putting them together. I thought I could make some better dinosaurs out of wood,” Neuzil said. “So I went home and sawed some dinosaurs.”
His primitive prototypes were so well-received, Neuzil’s sister asked him to make some for her home economics students at the state Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton.
“I made them so they could feel what they were like; I put big teeth on the Tyrannosaurus and shields and horns and stuff like that on the others. I made about 20 of them,” he said. “The school typed up Braille information to go along with them so they could learn about the dinosaurs, and they recorded information so the kids could listen to someone telling about each dinosaur.”
When the Braille school no longer had room for the wooden models, they ended up being donated to the Solon Public Library– at that time, still located in the tiny brick building on Iowa Street that is Solon’s current city hall. “There wasn’t any room there either. They were all stacked on top of the shelves and everywhere,” Neuzil said.
By then, the roar of the small dinosaurs had been heard around the region. Neuzil built a 3-foot T-Rex to be auctioned at the former Country Café as a fundraiser for the library. A local television news station did a story about the Braille school’s use of them as a teaching tool. Schoolteachers from all over the state began to ask to borrow them.
And they asked the Dinosaur Man to come along, too.
“One school called the library and asked to use them, and they asked me if I would come and talk. I said, ‘Talk about what? I didn’t know anything about dinosaurs,” Neuzil laughed. A lesson from a second grade boy soon taught him what he was missing.
“At one of the first schools I went to in Iowa City, this little boy raised his hand and asked if the velociraptor was the fastest dinosaur. And I didn’t really know. After the program, he came up and asked me if I had ever built a velociraptor. I wasn’t even sure what one looked like, but someone had given me a dictionary of dinosaurs. I reached down and picked it up, and the boy said, “Page 299.’ I mean, he was a second grader, and this was an adult book. Right there it dawned on me, if I didn’t know anything, I had better shut up, because these kids knew a hell of a lot more than I did. So I picked up some books and started reading.”
And aside from his efforts to support the Solon library in its capital campaign for a new building– Neuzil served on the library’s board at the time– his desire to encourage reading became the most powerful motivation of all.
“If kids are interested, they will read. That became the whole thing,” Neuzil said. “I’ve been in education all my life, and learning only takes place when there is interest.”
While Neuzil thought his early visits to the schools would be short-lived – “It was going to be a one-time gig,” Neuzil said– his friends Don Ochs, a retired University of Iowa rhetoric teacher, and Bob Middendorf encouraged him to keep the dinosaur show on the road. The pair, now both deceased, often helped him haul the dinosaurs across the state from school to school, and the wooden collection continued to expand; eventually, Neuzil made over 200 of traveling size, as well as wooden dinosaur floor puzzles, and it took three pick-up trucks to get them all from place to place. In 1998, he assisted Solon’s Lakeview Elementary students in creating a 10-foot Euhelopus that graced the school’s lobby for years. Neuzil has never charged a monetary fee for his visits or for loaning the dinosaurs, but there was a price to pay; every class he visited was asked to donate a book to either their own school library or the Solon Public Library, and they were asked to sign their names inside the book covers.
Retired Solon teacher Jeanne Hanes recalls how excited her students were when the Dinosaur Man and his entourage would bring the replicas to her classroom.
“It was usually a second grade curriculum theme. We did a dinosaur unit so kids knew it would be coming,” said Hanes. “Part of the thrill for the kid was they got to help carry in those dinosaurs, and they absolutely loved them.” Hanes said Neuzil’s presentation motivated the kids to read about and research individual dinosaurs, create documentation on them and write thank-you notes afterward. “When he started talking, you could see their minds just working. He could keep their attention for so long, he had so many things for them to look at and touch. One of the highlights of second grade was when the Dinosaur Man came.”
In time, Neuzil’s growing reputation as a dinosaur enthusiast earned him a trip to South Dakota on a dig with amateur fossil hunter Kim Hollrah, near the site where Tyrannosaurus Sue was unearthed.
“I got tired of digging, so I started wandering around,” Neuzil recalled. “I picked up a little fossil and took it back to Kim and asked him what it was. ‘Oh, that’s the second joint of the first toe of the left foot of a Dromaeosaurus,’ he said. Can you imagine?”
It wasn’t Neuzil’s last encounter with an authentic dinosaur bone– on the same dig, he found parts of a triceratops’ horn and shield– nor his last experience with fossil experts. He has spent time with Tyrannosaurus Sue’s discoverer Pete Larson, and Canadian paleontologist and museum founder Philip Currie, who now has three of Neuzil’s wooden dinosaurs in his home. In 2000, his nephew Charlie Gillette found a fossil in northern Iowa that Neuzil thought at first was probably not a dinosaur bone at all.
“It turned out to be a dinosaur vertebrae, the first one anyone had identified in Iowa,” Neuzil said.
Neuzil said he has not recorded the locations of his school visits or the number of students he has talked to, but about 10 years ago, he and Don Ochs estimated it was somewhere close to 30,000 kids. By now, the number has probably reached 50,000. Hanes said she saw Neuzil’s knowledge deepen with every presentation he gave.
“I could tell each time year, he had done more research and anticipated the kids’ questions. They just got better and better. He never seemed tired of doing it,” she said.
Neuzil said the value of education and the constant urging of Ochs and Middendorf are what has kept him going for 20 years. And he appreciates not just the classroom geniuses who can pronounce all the dinosaurs’ names, but even more so those who can’t.
“There is always a group of boys or girls who can use a little extra attention,” he said. “I have the teachers put them in charge (of the dinosaurs), unloading them, sorting them around, tightening the legs, to keep them engaged. Because not everybody is in the top half of the class, you know. But if you can create a spark…” Neuzil stopped to choose his words carefully. “I always believed if I could get one kid to read one book he wouldn’t read otherwise, I’d done all right.”
And in the end, that’s an enormous legacy to leave behind.