I was led to become a geologist by God through the guidance and encouragement of my parents, my Aunt Caroline Sireci, school teachers Verna Skinner and Jerry Tylor in Connecticut. I started by collecting rocks on the beaches in Key West, Florida with my Aunt where my father was stationed in the Navy. When my father was transferred back to Connecticut the two above mentioned school teachers, seeing my keen interest in rocks and minerals, made me into a “Rock Hound” joining the Thames Valley Rock Hounds chapter. In Junior High school and High School I was trading rocks and minerals by mail and going on field trips with other rock hounds in Connecticut. Also, Jerry taught me how to cut and polish stones for jewelry (lapidary). I made many gifts for my family and relatives as well as selling them. Later when I graduated high school, my father told me that he was cutting the “Apron Strings” and casting me out ofthe house saying “you will get a college education”. He never finished high school but joined the Navy.
I ended up in Morehead, Kentucky and attended Morehead State University (MSU) to start on my road to a geology degree. There was a geology professor, David Hylbert, who was conducting ground control studies through the U.S. Bureau of Mines grants in underground coal mines in southeast Kentucky,whorecruited me as his assistant. The bait he used was I would be able to collect plant fossils in the coal mines. Taking the job was both my downfall and my good fortune.My fossil collection was over-whelming, but the job paid for tuition, books and a salary. It also provided me with a master thesis topic and a full time job after I graduated. I went to Eastern Kentucky University (EKU) in Richmond, Kentucky.My work with Hylbert financed my stay at EKU and paid for my Masters Thesis, which was the interpretation of remote sensing earth satellite imagery predicting unstable ground in advance of underground mining. In 1980 I joined the U.S. Department of Health, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which inspects coal mines. My position was in the District headquarters in Norton, Virginia, where I remained with MSHA for28 years. For 18 of those years I was an Inspector. It was during those years that I did the biggest part of my fossil collecting, during my breaks, which were far and in between.
When the mine operators and miners discovered I was a geologist they wanted me to identify rocks and fossils. When I realized there was confusion regarding the fossils as to type and origin, I developed a short pamphlet of common plant fossils.I used the pamphlet in my geology lab when I taught Introduction to Geology as an adjunct instructorin Cumberland, Kentucky for Southeast Community College (SECC), as it was known then, forapproximately 25 years. As I continued collecting fossils, I was photographing them and with great difficulty identifying them. I had help from several different paleobotanists in the classification of the fossils. The majority of the fossils I identified by conducting intenseresearch of libraries and the internet. In the last year and a half of my stay with MSHA I collected from road cuts. Because I was the only one making a serious effort to find the fossils I found several locations that produced a wide variety of the plants and seed pods. The five page pamphlet snowballed into the three books I have published to date.
It should be noted that until I published the first book no one else, including the Virginia State Geological Survey, had published anything as a comprehensive publication for Virginia plant fossils.
I eventuallybegan to collect in Kentucky and parts of West Virginia becauseI covered all available outcrops in Virginia coal fields. Each book contains more diverse fossils from the one before it. The third volume contains about 75 percent Kentucky and 20 percent Virginia and about 5 percent West
Virginia fossils. I commissioned most of the figures in the books to be original drawings and colorization of existing black and white drawings from reference books. The artist resides in Thailand and specializes in 3-d art.
Because, as my wife put it, “all of the horizontal surfaces in our house were covered by fossils”, I found the Virginia Museum of Natural History to donate all of my collection from my first book. They even picked them up at my home.I have most recently been sending fossils to Dr. Shugheng Hu, paleobotanistat The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, in New Haven, Connecticut. He has helped me edit my manuscripts. Lately I have been developing yearly (month-by-month) calendars featuring my fossils.
I remember when I was still inspecting coal mines, Ifound a large slab of rock hanging on a roof support bearing plate. After it fell and I turned it over I could see evidence of a large fossil. I could not tell for sure because it was pretty dirty. I wrapped it up in a rock dust bag and left it there. To my surprise when I finished my inspection about three hours later it still was there undisturbed. I was sure it was going to be picked up and thrown away with the rest of the trash. I brought it home, cleaned it off and revealed two large overlapped ferns.Another time at an outcrop (road cut) on Black Mountain near Appalachia, Virginia, I found a large beautifully preserved fern fossil staring me in the face. From there a ponderosa size collection of fossils was acquired. This finding took me three days. Exploring an outcrop adjacent to railroad tracks in Appalachia, Virginia I found a bolder of sandstone rock with what appeared to be fossils. Thus, thepicture of the fossil tree limb of Cordaitescan befound in my first book.
Fossil collecting is a fun hobby but it requires diligence. It took the breaking of many, many rocks to find just one fossil. It is very rewarding, however, to look at things that grew in swamps like on those of the Mississippi River Delta millions of years ago. Luck is a large factor in finding fossils. Not all outcrops with a coal seam guarantees that fossils will be found.