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Obituaries

Raymond Alf; Teacher at Webb Schools, Founder of Paleontology Museum

October 02, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Raymond Alf is dead, and so is most of his legacy: a widely respected collection of 70,000 fossils that is little known outside the rarefied circles of professional paleontologists and graduates of the Webb Schools in Claremont, two worlds conjoined through the inspired teaching and vision of Alf.

Alf, who died Monday at age 93, was a revered teacher at Webb who founded the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology, the only accredited museum on an American high school campus.

A few years after he retired from Webb's faculty in 1974, he joked that he was just another one of the fossils housed by the boarding school. But the joke bore little truth.

True, he spent nearly 70 years on the Claremont campus, having started there as a tutor in 1929. He lived on the campus until December, when poor health necessitated his move to the Claremont nursing home where he died.

But Alf was no stuffy professor. A teacher of math and biology, he was legendary for his unusual instructional style.

He swung like an ape from pipes in his basement classroom to demonstrate the evolutionary feat of opposable thumbs. He punctuated lessons with outbursts in Cantonese and Latin. Not content to just answer a question, he would descend, feet stomping, into an imaginary cellar of knowledge to retrieve nuggets of information sought by students (really fooling no one when he, in actuality, was just hunching behind his lectern).

Best of all, he taught by doing, leading hundreds of students over the years on field trips around the western United States to collect what he called the "documents of life": fossils.

By the time he and his students had accumulated about 20,000 pieces--pig skulls to alligator jaws and dinosaur tracks--a dream had began to bloom: He wanted to build a museum. Those who knew of his antics in the classroom arched their brows and thought this was just another of Alf's crazy ideas.

Dream of a Museum Becomes a Reality

But Alf persevered. In 1968, the Alf Museum, designed by noted architect Millard Sheets, was opened on the Webb campus. Over the years, it has drawn scores of professional paleontologists--particularly because of its acclaimed collection of fossil footprints--and educated a legion of students, many of whom have gone on to distinguished careers in paleontology and geology.

"It's something special to have a museum named after you," Alf acknowledged once. But the way he saw it, the museum was not, despite its name, a memorial to him. It was, he said, "a living memorial to what students and teachers can accomplish together."

Alf was born in 1905 in Canton, now Guangzhou, China. The son of missionaries, he lived there until he was 11, then moved with his family to Des Moines to be near a grandmother. As a young man he worked a succession of odd jobs, pitching hay in Kansas and meeting postal trains in Nebraska.

At Doane College in Nebraska, he distinguished himself as a world-class sprinter. He nearly qualified for the U.S. Olympic teams in 1928 and 1932, and his running prowess earned him a spot in the Hall of Fame of the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics in 1974.

A track scout lured him to Los Angeles in 1929. Desperate for work, Alf signed up with a teaching agency. The agency sent him to Webb, founded in 1922 by Thompson and Vivian Webb to teach boys how to live in nature in a gentlemanly manner.

Alf was initially hired as a tutor for a struggling student but was soon offered a faculty position teaching biology. Around the same time he met and married fellow Webb teacher Pearl Wright, who was his wife for 60 years until her death in 1990.

In the early 1930s, Alf began making trips to a town near the Salton Sea where Pearl had an uncle and that also was the burial ground for a wealth of fossils. Soon he discovered Barstow, home of many famous fossil beds. Intrigued, he began to collect the dusty fragments of ancient life he found there. Not long after, he invited students along on his forays, tooling out to the Mojave Desert with three or four of them in his Model A Ford.

On one of those early trips in 1937, one of his students slid down a hillside and onto something hard and crusty, a skull of some kind. They took it to a paleontologist, who confirmed that the skull--of a 15-million-year-old wild pig called a peccary--was the first fossil of that species to be discovered.

Fossil Digs Full of Excitement

Thereafter, fossil digs with Alf were charged with excitement and ensured enlistees for the next several generations. Students not only did most of the digging, they did all of the planning, down to shopping for groceries and other supplies needed on the trips.

They were "immediately turned on by this kind of thing, and still are," said Malcolm C. McKenna, a well-known explorer and Frick curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, who says Alf changed his life when he was a student at Webb in the 1940s.

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