Unearthing the Best in People: A Celebration of Dr. Larry Agenbroad
Paleontologist Dr. Larry Agenbroad is a rare gem who doesn’t just live life; he inspires passion in the lives of others. For more than 40 years, he has been the site director of the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota: the longest continuous Earthwatch project in existence. In 2014, Dr. Larry Agenbroad will retire from the Mammoth Site, but the memory of his expeditions will continue to ignite and inspire the lives of the Earthwatch volunteers he touched. The following is a mere snapshot of the reams of lives he has touched, and his scientific contributions.
Under Agenbroad’s guidance, the Mammoth Site has grown to become the largest North American repository of Columbian mammoths, a species that became extinct about 11,000 years ago.
Forty years ago, while bulldozing a site for a housing development, George “Porky” Hanson unearthed a collection of bones. His son, who was once a student of Agenbroad’s, reached out to his former professor for guidance. Later that year, Agenbroad first stepped foot on what would soon be known as the Mammoth Site, with which he would become synonymous.
Under Agenbroad’s guidance, the Mammoth Site has grown to become the largest North American repository of Columbian mammoths, a species that became extinct about 11,000 years ago. The site has added an impressive wealth of knowledge on the fossil community and the environment of the past. To date, Agenbroad and his countless teams have unearthed 61 individual mammoths who had fallen victim to a sinkhole that is now the dig site. The teams have also found 85 other species of Ice Age fossils, including the giant short-faced bear and the timber wolf – adding a rich repertoire of species to our understanding of the landscape of the past.
There is much more to Agenbroad than his impressive list of awards, publications, and research findings. His impact on Earthwatch volunteers has been downright staggering. Earthwatch volunteers Vetris Lamb, Donald Daszenski, and Ruth Clemmer alone have been on a combined 66 separate expeditions.
It doesn’t take long to understand why these volunteers returned to the dig site year after year. Although they were inspired by the bones they helped to discover, they said their true inspiration came from the man himself, his character, and his ability to bring out the best in the people around him.
When Vetris Lamb recalled her time with Agenbroad, one word came to mind: trust. During her volunteer assignments, she spent hours at the dig site painstakingly unearthing bones, knowing her careful work had the full trust and support of Agenbroad. For over 20 years, she returned to the site every summer and became a local fixture in the community. “The town adopted me,” she said. “It was like a second home.” At 95, she decided to hang up her dust brushes. “Thinking back on the expeditions with Larry, I was paid in memories of good times,” she recalled recently from her home on Lake Erie.
Earthwatch volunteer Donald Daszenski spent a total of 24 weeks at the site between 1995 and 2008. “What impressed me most was the change each time I went,” he said. “The dig site was just a fantastic place to be.” With a background in Earth Science, Daszenski was drawn not only to Agenbroad’s intelligence and vast knowledge about his subject, but to his humility and approachability. He was able to help those with any level of scientific understanding,” Daszenski said. Today, armed with the confidence inspired by his work with Agenbroad, Daszenski continues to pursue his passion for exploration, including such trips as kayaking in Alaska.
In 2006, after reading a brochure in her hotel room in South Dakota, Ruth Clemmer decided to visit the Mammoth Site and meet Agenbroad. She was immediately hooked. “I fell in love,” she said. “I was out there every year for both Earthwatch sessions from 2007 until 2013.” When she began her work with Agenbroad, Clemmer said she had no idea what was in store for her. In 2009, she began to uncover a large bone. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger,” she said. She asked Agenbroad if she could forgo a group field trip so as to continue her work and he readily agreed. When he returned and saw what she had unearthed, he told her she had found a Nuchal Crest, an intact mammoth skull. The skull has since been named after Clemmer, and is now known as the “Clem.” Speaking from her home, she spoke of Agenbroad as a “kind man that loves and encourages enthusiasm in others.”
Carrie Levitt-Bussian first met Agenbroad on a family vacation to the Mammoth Site at the age of 11. As she walked around the site, she waved to Agenbroad, who ambled up from the pit he was excavating to meet the young girl. Their first encounter led to a 17-year correspondence between the two. “When I became old enough, he asked me to come dig with him through a wonderful program called Earthwatch,” she said from a desk littered with bones and archaeology tools. “Agenbroad changed my life and inspired me to pursue a career in paleontology.” With Agenbroad’s guidance and support, Bussian achieved her dream job as the Paleontology Collections Manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah.
On behalf of all of us at Earthwatch, thank you, Larry, for your profound commitment to our volunteers and our mission. We salute your endless contributions to scientific discovery. But most of all, we salute you.