Contributed photo/Ray Troll
Contributed photo/Eric Scott
When paleontologist Ted Fremd of Mt. Vernon moved to Grant County in 1984, he’d planned to stay a short time, find a few fossils, write a few papers, then move on.
Fremd went from working with a collection of 120 fossils in a 10 square-foot laboratory to becoming the first chief of paleontology at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument to establishing the world-renowned Thomas Condon Paleontology Center where he was project manager.
His achievements since then have been remarkable, but his latest accomplishment possibly tops them all.
Fremd received the prestigious Morris F. Skinner Award from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in recognition of his many scientific contributions, including creating important collections of fossil vertebrates.
“This is something like the Nobel Prize for paleontologists, and it’s kind of cool that a Grant County person was chosen from an international pool,” Fremd said.
He said award committee members were from as far away as Beijing, China, and Paris, France.
Fremd also credits the two previous superintendents of the national monument, both of whom still reside in Grant County, for the award.
“Ben Ladd, first superintendent of the park, was a huge supporter of paleontology, and Jim Hammett insured that the visitor center would be built and tolerated many of my insubordinations,” he said.
Fremd said his wife of 45 years, Skylar Rickabaugh, was instrumental for his success.
He quipped, she’s the reason I’m “not one of the entombed biota we paleontologists study.”
Fremd spends half his time in Eugene, where he is a researcher at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History and the Department of Earth Sciences.
He also lives on Laycock Creek Road in Mt. Vernon, where he enjoys the solitude, and he still occasionally volunteers at the monument.
Fremd is the only paleontologist to serve as a regional science advisor to the National Park Service.
He has five fossil species named in his honor, including Plesiosminthus fremdi (Korth and Samuels, 2015), an important rodent to biostratigraphers. Biostratigraphy focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them.
Fremd has published and coauthored numerous papers and reports in his field, and is now looking forward to completing a book, with two other authors, about the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
“I don’t think most people have a good idea of just how significant the monument is,” he said. “Everyone in Australia and China knows it. The main reason I won the award was the resources themselves are so significant.”
He added, “The national monument is almost not enough — it’s incredibly important.”
The fossils preserved at the monument span more than 40 million years, and Fremd said they are always finding something new and interesting.
“We thought we had a really good handle on what was there,” he said. “We’re now realizing we’ve just scratched the surface of discoveries.”
He said the upcoming book, coauthored by Joshua Samuels (his successor at the monument) and Regan Dunn, will go to print in about one year, published by Indiana University Press.
“We’re excited about that, to put it together once and for all,” he said.
As a boy, Fremd collected cereal box dinosaurs, and as early as he can remember was interested in a variety of scientific disciplines, including astronomy, paleontology and cactus plants.
He said it was fortunate he had a high school physics teacher, who was also a Ph.D. researcher, spurring his interest in astronomy.
Fremd said life as a paleontologist never becomes dull, and he’s getting paid to do what he wanted to do when he was a child.
“It’s uplifting to encounter, discover, exhume, objects that no human being has ever seen — ever,” he said. “It’s entirely unexpected, undiscovered.”
To the untrained eye, the fossils may look like “dusty, dried rocks with bone-shaped things,” he said, but a paleontologist sees more.
“In this field, you can imagine them as living, breathing things and analyze what they did while living,” he said.