Coon Creek Science Center Lab named

Bub Lively found peace digging for fossils at the UT Martin Coon Creek Science Center located in McNairy County. He battled cancer, and he wanted to assure that future generations of children would share his Coon Creek experience. A gift from the family following his Feb. 5 death earlier this year will help support those opportunities through the Clinton W. (Bub) Lively Paleontology Lab.

The lab is located below the center’s main building where a brief program was held May 24  to formally announce the naming and honor Lively’s memory. The event was attended by family members, UT Martin faculty and staff, and elected officials, including Selmer Mayor Sherry Inman and State Sen. Page Walley (R-District 26).

Considered one of the most important fossil sites in the U.S., the center is a 76-million-year-old exposed seafloor deposit that’s home to almost 700 preserved marine species. The 240-acre property was acquired by lease in April 2020 by the university from the Pink Palace Family of Museums in Memphis after years of partnership for institutional field research, community outreach and instruction.

The center is managed by the UT McNairy County Center/Selmer and hosts educational programs year-round, including university faculty and student research opportunities, classes and internships, external geoscience professional and field training, educator training, summer camps and more. Visitors of all ages and professions can receive hands-on experience learning how to carefully find and extract fossils.

Lively loved the outdoors, and the freedom to explore and dig for fossils during his illness inspired his love for Coon Creek.

Dr. Todd Winters, UT Martin College of Agriculture and Applied Sciences dean, was introduced by Alan Youngerman, Selmer Center director. Winters told about the location’s significance in the paleontology world.      

“This science center is just a very important part of what we do in the geosciences program,” Winters said. “As many of you have already experienced and can see looking around, the UT Martin Coon Creek Science Center is a captivating hub for scientific exploration. … It’s located in one of the most significant fossil sites in North America if not the world.”

Winters cited one example of research conducted at the site by UT Martin professor emeritus of geology Dr. Michael Gibson, Vanderbilt University and the U.S. Geological Survey. The joint research identified Coon Creek as one of the earliest examples of red tides, which happen in the sea and freshwater when harmful algae bloom out of control.

“It was a real big discovery,” Winters said.

Gibson, former Coon Creek Science Center director, followed Winters on the program and is known for his expertise in paleontology, marine geology and geoscience education. He helped obtain specimens and design the displays in the natural history area of the Discovery Park of America in Union City and received over $1.5 million in grants over a 35-year career. Gibson is also a UT Alumni Association Distinguished Service Professor and three-time nominee for the UT President’s Citation of Merit Award.

He told the audience that the scientific research conducted at the site is important, “but it’s also about everybody else participating in what we call ‘citizen science.’”

“By having the public come in, and opening our doors, and let them do the digging, and let them do the finding, and then let people like me walk around and go, ‘Oh, that thing’s amazing. Let me tell you what you’ve got, and by the way, that one is so good, would you donate that, so we can do some science on it? And you get to be part of that science.’”

These kinds of opportunities for the public to explore and dig for fossils at Coon Creek led to a one-time conversation with Lively at the center.

“We just sat and chatted about why these things were so important,” Gibson said. “… I am incredibly proud to say that it (the gift) wasn’t because of another scientist or corporation, but it was from a family. … Your family (the Lively family) has made a lasting, permanent investment in what we do here.”                

Dianne Lively then offered brief comments and recalled the day that she traveled with her husband to Coon Creek to focus on digging fossils instead of the struggles related to his illness.

“Now it was a perfect rainy day for us to go play in the creek,” she said. “We forgot about the kids. We just had a ball ourselves. We learned a lot, and we enjoyed the day.” She later overheard a conversation that forever impacted the center’s future.

“I overheard my husband and Dr. Gibson talking, and my husband told him as they were comparing rocks … that one day he would have his name on this building because he wanted to make sure kids would always be able to come and enjoy the outdoors and learn about fossils. Well today we’re making this day happen.”

Jeanna Curtis-Swafford, UT Martin vice chancellor for university advancement, spoke earlier in the program and reminded those attending that Coon Creek was where Bub Lively’s “love of the outdoors intersected with cherished family bonds and memories.”

“As Dianne aptly puts it, whenever the wind rustles through the trees, she senses Bub’s presence,” she said. “May that gentle breeze continue to whisper his memory through the ages as the Clinton W. ‘Bub’ Lively Paleontology Lab.”

Information about Coon Creek and the UT Martin McNairy County Center/Selmer is available by calling 731-646-1636 or by searching Coon Creek Science Center on the web.                        


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