Martinsville, Virginia


VMNH Presents Jefferson Awards

Article by Mickey Powell, Martinsville Bulletin Staff Writer


Two local recipients were among this year’s winners of Thomas Jefferson Awards, presented by the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Thursday. The annual awards ceremony honors people and companies that have made significant contributions to natural sciences and related educational efforts.

Bassett Furniture Industries received the William Barton Rogers Corporate Award, presented to a company that has shown significant support for the natural sciences in Virginia through its contributions to research, science education or other relevant programs of the museum. The company was one of the Jefferson Awards presentation’s sponsors.

Local businessman Jim Farrell introduced Jeb Bassett, the company’s senior vice president, who accepted the award. Over the years, Farrell said, Bassett Furniture has been a major supporter of the museum, its research and the campaign to construct its current building on Starling Avenue. Bassett said the museum is “a tremendous asset, making this area a wonderful place to live, work, play and raise a family.” He and other award winners said receiving a Jefferson Award was an honor.

Jennifer Doss, tourism director for the Martinsville-Henry County Economic Development Corp. (EDC), received the Noel T. Boaz Director’s Award. The award, presented by museum Executive Director Joe Keiper, is named after the museum’s founder. Full of energy, Doss has “led the pack” of promoters of the museum, Keiper said. “Every time we turn around,” he said of museum employees, Doss is finding a way to promote the museum in efforts to attract tourists to the area. “We’re so fortunate to have this Smithsonian-affiliated institution in our backyard,” Doss said of the museum. “Sharing our enthusiasm (for Henry County and Martinsville) is not difficult,” she said of EDC officials, when there are so many positive things about the community to mention, such as the museum and scenic rivers and lakes.

Other award winners were:

Dr. J. James Murray Jr., emeritus professor of biology at the University of Virginia and former longtime member of the museum’s board of trustees. He was presented the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science. Presenting the award, Boaz mentioned that Murray helped in founding the museum and a satellite branch at the university. The branch now is closed due to state budget cuts. What “means more to me than most” Jefferson Award recipients, Murray surmised, is that the award is named after the founder of the university. He said he thinks the museum is “in good shape” and can weather any challenges in the future.

Dr. Donald W. Linzey, biology professor at Wytheville Community College, who received the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education. Eric Hallerman, a professor in the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Department at Virginia Tech, mentioned that Linzey also is a mammalogy and herpetology (snakes) professor at the university and has written books on those subjects. Noting that he was on the museum’s first board, Linzey said, “I was just astounded” upon entering the museum’s current building. He recalled it originally was in a former school building on Douglas Avenue.

Dr. Alan S. Weakley, along with James C. Ludwig, John F. Townsend and Bland Crowder, who received the Thomas Jefferson Award for Conservation. The recipients comprise the botanical and editorial team responsible for the publication “Flora of Virginia,” which details the approximately 3,200 native and naturalized plant species in the state. The publication was the first comprehensive book developed on Virginia’s plants since 1762, said DorothyBelle Poli, associate professor of biology at Roanoke College. While introducing members of the team, she said she uses the book and was honored to finally meet them. Poli said the team spent 11 years developing the 1,600-page book, which was released in 2012. Every copy was sold within a year, she said. The team mentioned that as part of Jefferson’s personal interest in botany, he wanted to show Europeans that plants in the United States were superior to ones on that continent. A second-edition copy of the book was presented to the museum. Keiper said the book will be kept in the museum’s library for public use. Thursday’s event was the museum’s 27th Jefferson Awards presentation.

The guest speaker was Bruce Latimer, a professor of anthropology, anatomy and cognitive science who is director of the Center for Human Origins at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Latimer is an internationally recognized expert on the evolution of human locomotion whose research has helped shape present understanding of the evolutionary processes that resulted in humans’ ability to walk on two feet, according to museum officials. He is among the group of scientists who analyzed the famous ape skeleton “Lucy” discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. Scientists believe the skeleton dates back about 3.2 million years. “It’s rather shocking how close we (as humans) are to apes,” Latimer said. He said the species are 98.5 percent alike anatomically. “We’re closer to a chimp than a horse is to a donkey,” he said. But chimps have stronger hips than people, Latimer pointed out.

His presentation focused on how bones and skeletons of humans and apes differ and pertinent advantages and disadvantages of their structures. Humans have an advantage in that they have “incredibly flexible spines” and are able to bend their bodies moreso than other mammals, Latimer said. Yet the ability to stand upright sacrifices humans’ ability to run extremely fast like many mammals with four feet, such as large cats, he said. Latimer is the former executive director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, where Keiper was director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology before coming to Martinsville. Keiper said Latimer hired him.