About the Society Awards Past Award Winners 2004 Honorary Membership Award Recipients
Jason Arthur Lillegraven
Photo courtesy of Jason Lillegraven.
Graphic-arts major Jay Lillegraven remembers learning the word "paleontology" during his first year of junior college; he had not been exposed to science in high school. Because Los Angeles Harbor College required a course in biology for the Associate in Arts degree, Jay signed up for a class entitled "zoology," then taught by the basketball coach — Jay figured, "It must be about zoos." Coach Norm Kettering turned on Jay's mental light bulb.
Latent interests in the sciences of life awakened, and wholly by accident Jay then fell into the intellectual embrace of John A. White at Long Beach State . The worlds of comparative anatomy, embryology, histology, genetics, and vertebrate paleontology were opened. John also encouraged Jay to absorb as much geology as possible, thus setting the stage for Jay's career-long, scientific schizophrenia that continues to this day. Robert W. Wilson and Morton Green at South Dakota Mines provided examples of true scientific professionalism and turned Jay loose into the richly fossiliferous but structurally chaotic White River beds in the state's northwestern corner. Jay's masters thesis capitalized on the opportunity to link vertebrate biostratigraphy with structural geology, showing definite emphasis on the latter. That first experience in field research was particularly stimulating for Jay, because his observations completely revised the Neogene paleogeographic history of northwestern South Dakota, overturning prior interpretations published by the U.S. Geological Survey.
Doctoral study at Kansas under the supervision of William A. Clemens, Jr. was even more exciting for Jay, because Bill entrusted him with first-class opportunities to study latest Cretaceous mammals in Alberta . But even then, Jay's academic schizophrenic tendencies re-emerged when Bill casually said to him, "No studies on the marsupial brain have been conducted since the time of Sir Richard Owen." Well, that very night Jay's perusal of the Journal of Comparative Neurology showed Bill's comment to have been exaggerated. That recognition led to career-long forays into comparative knowledge of marsupial anatomy, early development, and the respective importance of both in recognizing directions of mammalian evolution.
Field trips, early-morning runs and discussions, and endless handball games with Donald E. Savage during postdoctoral study at Cal Berkeley reinforced the strengths of biostratigraphy in Jay's mind. He put that spirit to use for six years through his first faculty position (zoology, San Diego State ) in the Eocene sections of San Diego County. Jay never quite recovered from the intellectual wealth contributed to him by his biological colleagues at that institution; SDSU's faculty and students then, as continues today, were hard to beat in terms of emphasis on organismal, evolutionary biology. Also, Jay's future and now-beloved wife (then art student Linda Thompson) was a pupil in his very first class there.
Nevertheless, Jay next moved to Wyoming following the retirement of Paul O. McGrew and spent 29 years with its university's geology program. Through most of those years he enjoyed a joint (and therapeutically very important) academic appointment within UW's zoology department. The academic routine was punctuated by breaks to study docodont skulls in Germany and to serve two of NSF's divisions — as its Program Director for Systematic Biology and later (and far more enjoyably) as a panelist for its Geology and Paleontology Program.
The latter half of Jay's career at Wyoming led to the strongest expressions of his scientific split personality. He encountered the enormously thick and extraordinarily deformed Upper Cretaceous and Paleocene sections in the nearby Hanna/Carbon Basin. A study that began as simple biostratigraphy led Jay and several of his students, step by unexpected step, into the worlds of geologic mapping, structural geology, and Laramide tectonics.Despite the good influence of friends and co-workers such as Malcolm C. McKenna and Donald W. Boyd, Jay became disenchanted with cladistically based systematic paleontology and now is deeply immersed in interpreting late Paleocene-early Eocene tectonic evolution of margins of the original eastern end of the greater Green River Basin . Jay recognizes that this is "old-fashioned" stuff, but the new data he is gathering through detailed field measurements is documenting new forms of duplexed, dominantly younger-on-older, out-of-the-basin thrusting that developed in association with previously unrecognized, basement-involved basin fragmentation. None of these things was known before, and the new structural phenomena being documented in south-central Wyoming almost certainly now will be recognized widely throughout basin margins of the Rocky Mountain region.
The new work has practical geological importance in illustrating how many earlier interpretations based on basin-margin erosion followed by deposition upon the resulting unconformities in reality were caused by out-of-the-basin faulting, well inboard from the margins of basins that were much larger than previously thought. Assemblages of fossil mammals remain a key tool for dating this tectonism. Jay takes sadistic glee in evaluating previous studies of basin modeling, developed under largely data-free, theoretical assumptions that the prior studies of Rocky Mountain basins were actually correct!
Now, in formal retirement, Jay is enjoying greater opportunities for field research, Macintosh-based map construction, re-thinking paleogeographic evolution of Wyoming during the Laramide orogeny, co-editing Rocky Mountain Geology, and serving on the Board of Trustees for the Wyoming Chapter of The Nature Conservancy. The only thing he expects to miss from his earlier academic life is close interaction with the research of graduate students in paleontology. He was blessed through the decades with some of the best in the business. Jay thanks, and most sincerely so, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology for the award of Honorary Membership.