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The bone collector

Ruskin paleontologist Frank Garcia's passion has netted about 30 discoveries of unknown prehistoric species.

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Frank Garcia, Ruskin's leading paleontologist, works on a stand for a fossil in his mini museum in his house.

By JAY CRIDLIN
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 21, 2003


RUSKIN -- The focal points of Frank Garcia's museum are fairly obvious.

There's an enormous 35,000-year-old mammoth skull from Germany, a 7-million-year-old skull from a giant crocodile known as the Gavialsuchus and a 40-million-year-old rhino skull, straight from his ranch in Nebraska.

But those could be the focal points of any museum. This is Frank Garcia's museum, in his own garage-style basement, a short walk from the Little Manatee River in Ruskin.

Lined up on the shelves alongside these priceless artifacts of natural history are an unopened can of Billy Beer, a mint-in-the-box Paleontologist Barbie, and "Jake," a stuffed and mounted jackrabbit with antlers.

"That tells you a little about my personality," Garcia says. "I work with a lot of people that are brilliant in the field of paleontology. They have degrees -- really brilliant, really cool people.

"And then there are some that have the personality of a wet mop."

Any wet mop who scoffs that the bones of a 2-million-year-old giant sloth don't belong next to a first-place trophy from a co-ed volleyball league would be wise to soak up the knowledge that Garcia, Tampa Bay's pre-eminent paleontologist, has to offer.

On a good day, Garcia rewrites history: He has discovered some 30 previously unknown prehistoric species.

Since 1983, when he discovered a Ruskin mine full of hundreds of ice-age species -- a prehistoric Noah's Ark known as the Leisey Shell Pit -- Garcia has been among the world's foremost paleontologists.

The Leisey Shell Pit, located by the Little Manatee River, is perhaps the world's largest ice-age fossil deposit, yielding tens of thousands of bones and several hundred species of Ice Age mammals.

Garcia wasn't even a professional paleontologist -- he installed asbestos insulation for a living, searching for bones in his spare time on grant money -- but the Leisey Shell Pit made him an instant celebrity.

Time and Newsweek both featured him prominently in their pages. PBS made a documentary about his life, and he was interviewed on Today by Bryant Gumbel for what he calls "eight terrifying minutes."

His accomplishments could fill a book. Indeed, they have -- Garcia has written an autobiography that he hopes to someday publish.

"The cool thing about my life story is every paragraph is going to be different," says Garcia, a fit 56-year-old with a diamond stud in his left ear. "You don't know what the hell to expect. People have no idea what I'm all about."

For example, his "museum" doubles as a sound studio. Two enormous speakers flank a microphone in the center of the room. CDs of karaoke music are stacked on a nearby shelf. He sang at a club in Brandon on March 10 and is planning to record a CD of his music later this year.

He does impressions: Elvis Presley, Walter Cronkite, Ronald Reagan, Billy Joel.

"I did not inhale," he rasps as Bill Clinton. "Monica did."

With his passion and enthusiasm for everything he does -- not just digging up fossils -- it's no surprise Garcia is lauded everywhere he goes. In January 2002, he was presented with the Favorite Sons & Daughters award by the Hillsborough County Commission.

Not bad, he is fond of pointing out, for someone who once failed first grade.

" 'Jack and Jill went up the hill' didn't excite me at all," he says.

What did excite him were the fossils he discovered near Lake Okeechobee when he used to visit his grandfather, the mayor of Pahokee.

His interest has only increased, and his finds have grown larger.

His favorite story goes like this. Once, years ago, his leg was broken in five places. But he couldn't stay away from the phosphate mines where he loved searching for fossils, so one day, he grabbed his crutches and headed out.

On top of one hill, he found a skull that looked like it belonged to a giraffe or a camel, only it had what looked like antelope horns.

Turns out it was a completely new creature. It's one of the only such skulls in the world. Scientists named it Kyptoceras amatorum -- "Kyptoceras" meaning horned beast, and "amatorum" meaning amateur or lover -- after Garcia, an amateur fossil lover.

He now imparts that love to other children through Paleo Preserve, a paleontological field trip site in Ruskin where schoolchildren dig and discover fossils of their own.

Garcia finds himself enchanted by the children who unearth a fragment of elephant bone or tortoise shell.

"I tell the children it's all about attitude," he says. "If you have a good attitude, you can do anything you want to do in life. With a bad attitude, forget it. You'll have a lousy life. It's as simple as that."

Another object on Garcia's museum wall holds a special place in his heart -- a rubbing of a headstone found in a cemetery near his Nebraska ranch.

"Earl E," the delicate tissue rubbing reads. "Son of C.M. Saxton. Died May 28, 1889."

Below that formal epitaph is a hand-carved etching: "Weep not for me."

Garcia says it's a message about life. "When I die, don't cry for me, man, because I really enjoyed the hell out of living it," he says. "Weep for somebody that didn't get to do the things I have done."

Frank Garcia

AGE: 56

HOME: Ruskin

CHILDREN: A daughter in Miami, Aubrey Chandler, and two stepchildren, Kyle Gannarelli, a soldier in Kuwait, and Monica Gannarelli, a senior at East Bay High School.

PETS: Webster, a half-chihuahua, half-dachshund.

CREATURES HE'S DUG UP: Prehistoric vultures, bears, three-toed horses, giant sharks, sloths, antelope, sea cows and crocodiles.

FOSSIL NAMESAKES: Sub-Antilocaptra garciae, a species of antelope, and another mammal, Kyptoceras amatorum ("amatorum" refers to amateur fossil-lovers like himself).

DEDICATION PAGE IN HIS BOOK: His fourth-grade teacher, Clara Nuccio, the niece of former Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio.

BEDROCK ANTHEMS: An autographed photo of Billy Joel and Elton John and an autographed record from Gloria Estefan hang in his hallway.

FAVORITE SONG: Blue Bayou by Roy Orbison.

THE ONE THING HE'LL NEVER DO: Eat sweet potatoes.

TO VISIT HIS PALEO PRESERVE: Write to Ron Shrader, P.O. Box 1075, Ruskin, FL 33570, or call 641-6853.

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