Most of us can probably name at least a handful of Michigan’s official state symbols. There’s the robin—the official state bird. The Petoskey stone—the official state stone. And then there are the ones you probably don’t even have a clue about—like the official state sand (it’s “Kalkaska sand”). But up until recently, Michigan was without one symbol that some 30 other states had bestowed upon themselves: a state fossil. California had the sabertooth cat. Montana, the duck-billed dinosaur. And Arizonans? They figured out that petrified wood best represented them way back in 1988. Well, 10 years ago this week, Michigan finally got with the program and chose the American mastodon—a fitting choice as you’ll read below—as its official state fossil. But we Michiganders probably would’ve remained fossil-less for a long time to come if not for the efforts of Dave Thomas, a geologist, Washtenaw Community College professor, and veteran of two Michigan mastodon digs who took it upon himself to make sure the mastodon finally got its due. In the run up to the 10 year anniversary, we recently visited with Dave in his home in Canton, Mich. to take a look back at how it all happened. (This piece originally ran on April 4, 2012.)
* * *
Found Michigan: So how did this become a thing for you, that you were going to try to get Michigan to recognize the mastodon as its official state fossil?
Dave: Well, the idea was actually born in Colorado, when I was teaching at Mesa College in the late 90’s. Their state fossil was the stegosaurus. I worked at the museum of Western Colorado in Grand Junction and they sold t-shirts with a stegosaurus on it that said “Our State Fossil.” And I said to myself, Michigan doesn’t have a state fossil. We have a state stone, state bird, etc. I wonder if it’s possible for me to get the Michigan legislature to pass something like this. And by 2000, I said, I’ve got to move on this. I wanted to see if the legislative system really works …
FM: So this was really a test of American democracy for you?
Dave: [Laughs] Yeah, well, I was interested in having a state fossil, but the only vehicle to accomplish it was to go through the political process. So I wrote to my state senator at the time, Thaddeus McCotter, and asked him if he’d be interested in getting me a bill started. Well, there wasn’t much of an answer for awhile. But I kept waiting, and I finally received an email from his assistant that said, “Dave, we got you a bill. It’s Senate Bill 397. Go to work.” It was like two sentences.
FM: Just like that … ?
Dave: Yeah, just like that.
FM: But why did he care? I mean, what was his rationale in just giving you this bill?
Dave: I don’t know. I still don’t know! But all I knew is that I was the one that needed to do the groundwork and get the petitions going, the letters to Thaddeus and the Governor, and just get a groundswell of support. So what happened is, I started going to conferences, giving speeches, I’m going to rock clubs, science groups. I’m going to my neighbors, passing out petitions everywhere. I just went helter skelter. Wherever I could get someone to listen, I would go. And so we’re moving along and then one day I noticed Senator McCotter was having this fundraiser—a spaghetti fundraiser—and my wife Judy and I decided we’re gonna go—politics aside—because Thaddeus is the one that started this for me and I need to show him my respect. So we go to the dinner, and I get a two-minute chat with him. And I just said, “Thanks a lot for getting us the bill, we got the ball rolling, and we’ll see how far it goes.” And he said, “Dave, good luck, but John Engler’s really got more important things to do. People are writing about changing the state bird, the state turtle. Good luck, but I don’t have much hope for it.”
FM: [Laughs] Wow. That’s pretty harsh. And so did that kind of burst your bubble?
Dave: No, not really. We came home and went right back to work and started to get some Michigan earth science teachers involved. I went to the Michigan Science Teachers Association board meeting in Lansing and asked the president if I could speak about the bill. And the president said, “Dave, you got five minutes.” I said “Fine, that’s all I need.” So I did my spiel, in five minutes, and I stuck around, and during the break I was packing up to leave, and a science teacher from Ann Arbor named Jeff Bradley said, “Dave, I’m interested in this. I think I can use my entire class to support this.” And so a few months later in February of 2002, we all went to Lansing and had a rally on the Capitol steps. These school buses all pulled up—I don’t know how many others schools showed up. A lot of students showed up that day. And Jeff’s wife Sarah—they had just adopted two children—she even made a mastodon costume for one of their kids. It was great.
FM: And so what happened next?
Dave: Well, the next thing I know, within a month of that, the bill goes to the Senate and it passes! Now I couldn’t believe it. And McCotter had to be the most surprised out of anyone in Lansing. And so now the bill is off to the House, and as it turned out, the man in charge in the House—they have various subcommittees in the House—and the one that addresses state symbols was chaired by Rep. Bruce Patterson, who’s also from my district.
FM: Whoa, lucky …
Dave: Well … except that a few months earlier back in 2001, I’m in the print shop here in Canton getting some flyers and petitions run off, and who walks in to pick up a print job?
FM: Bruce Patterson … ?
Dave: Right, and I say “Hey Bruce! Remember me? You used to come to our homeowners’ association meetings when you were a county commissioner?” And I said, “By the way, do you know about this bill? Would you mind taking a flyer, passing it out, give me a little help?” And he said, “Dave, I’d like to help you, but you know, that’s not going anywhere. I’m sorry.” And he didn’t take single piece of paper. He just dismissed it. Adios! So he leaves, and now fast-forward to ‘02, and the bill’s going to his committee. And I’m thinking to myself, Oh my God, is he still thinking the same way he was thinking last year? If he is, I’m a dead duck. Well, I get a phone call, and he says that the bill is coming up for a hearing before it’s voted on. And so we round up all the kids, and all the kids show up again. Some of the kids go up to the podium and they’re very nervous and they’re giving their reasons why they think the mastodon should be the state fossil: because it’s 10,000 years old and it’s five tons—all this scientific information is coming out of them. And I’m thinking, This is fantastic. Maybe playing the kid card really does work. And a couple of days later, Bruce calls me and says, “Dave, that was the most impressive hearing I have ever seen. I couldn’t believe the kids understood how government works. They’re involved in civics. They took time from school to come out here.” He says, “Dave, I’m not going to let this fail. But I gotta work the system.” So later I get a phone call or an email and he says “Dave, I was able to do something for John [Engler] in order to get this passed.”
FM: Wait, he had to do John Engler a favor?
FM: [Laughs] So what was the favor?
Dave: I don’t know, I didn’t ask! All he said was: “We tossed a few things around—you know, he needed this and I needed that. And so we put a little bundle together and this was part of the bundle, and it’s done. He’s gonna sign it in April.”
Dave: So it passed the House, and I get this phone call and he said, “John’s gonna sign it in the next week or two and we’ll let you know when it’s all done.” So after it was all done, I got letters in the mail from Engler. And I even got the pen he signed the bill with.
FM: Wait, so you weren’t there for the signing?
Dave: No, I was too busy, I couldn’t take off any more time from work! So when that happened it was just an absolute delight. And I said to myself, I don’t care if I ever work on another bill in my life. This is a lot of work, but it’s politics at work. And at least I believe in the system now.
FM: And so once it was all over, what did you do to celebrate?
Dave: Well, I was flabbergasted. I don’t think we celebrated in a special way at all. I think we might have gone out to dinner. Yeah, Judy and I went out to dinner.
FM: That’s it!?
Dave: To me, getting the bill passed was the satisfaction. I didn’t really have to go out and get drunk with champagne or anything like that. I was just ‘Happy Dave.’ You know, nobody’s life really changes as a result of this. However, the lives of children will change. That was my goal—I’ve been an educator my entire career and I wanted to see the mastodon integrated into the Michigan classroom. I mean, when I’m dead and gone, the kids of today will at least learn a little more about science and learn that a little guy like Dave Thomas from ‘nowhere Canton Michigan’ can get a bill passed in Lansing. So, you know, the point is to educate our society to the science of our state, because they don’t teach it to us. We don’t learn it in school. I mean, we have these wonderful extinct animals that used to run around here. They were all over Michigan—mastodons were here by the thousands. But they’re extinct now, and we need to learn more about the extinct animals of Michigan’s past.
FM: So there’s a real connection between Michigan and the mastodon then. When you were trying to select a fossil that you wanted to lobby for, were there any other fossils you considered picking?
Dave: No, there was no competition. If you’re going to make something special, like a state symbol, like a state fossil, for example, it has to be something really special to your state. In Michigan, the largest extinct animal we have is the mammoth, followed by the mastodon. But we have 10 times more mastodons found here. So my rationale was that children like the large, big beasts of the past—that excites them. If you want to make the little brachiopod or the trilobite—which is only an inch long—the state fossil, kids probably aren’t going to be interested. But if it’s big, and it’s a beast, and it roars, they love it! So I thought: Let’s go for the big guy.
FM: And some 30 other states have state fossils—how does ours stack up?
Dave: I think ours is the best.
FM: I don’t know—California has the saber tooth cat.
Dave: Well, we are in competition with some other beasts out there. But ours stacks up among the biggest. It really does. Ohio has the isotelus trilobite.
FM: Yeah, and a trilobite versus a mastodon … ?
Dave: Yeah, there’s really no competition in terms of the “beast” factor.
FM: Well, one more question. The ten year anniversary is this week, on April 8th, right? So what are you going to do to celebrate?
Dave: I don’t know what to do! I’ve been thinking about it. I guess we’ll go out to dinner again.
FM: Just dinner again!?
Dave: Well, what should I do? Wait a minute, let me grab my calendar. [Grabs his datebook] Wait! April 8th is Easter, Easter Sunday! That is great. Maybe we’ll have a cake made in the shape of a mastodon, and we’ll take a picture and I’ll email it to you. Well, we could do something on the 7th too. That’s a Saturday. We could get started early and continue into the night.
Dave Thomas—the man behind Michigan’s state fossil— lives in Canton, Mich. with his wife Judy. This piece originally ran on April 4, 2012.