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Dynamic Dyslexics: Jack Horner - A Story of Passion and Perseverance

Jack Horner is a world renowned paleontologist who helped create all 4 Jurassic Park movies. He runs the biggest dinosaur research program in the U.S. out of the University of Montana and is an esteemed professor of paleontology. He is currently working on genetically engineering a Dino-chicken. Yes, you read that right, A Dino-chicken! More on that later.

If you had asked Jack Horner’s father if he thought that his son would be so successful based on his academic performance in school, his answer would likely have been a resounding no. Jack had trouble from the very beginning with the letters of the alphabet in kindergarten. He also struggled with math in elementary school. His father attempted to teach his son algebra when Jack was just 8 years old. This attempt failed miserably and left both father and son confused and frustrated. Jack fared no better in high school and graduated with a D- . His English teacher told him that what that meant was that he had failed, but that he never wanted to see Jack again. Despite these wounding childhood experiences, Jack had a passion. He had a goal for himself and it involved dinosaurs. From an early age, Jack loved dinosaurs of all varieties, and he found his very first dinosaur bone while on a trip with his father when he was 8. After that his mother, who was integral in helping young Jack develop skill and knowledge in his passion by taking him anywhere he wanted to go to dig up dinosaur bones. He gathered so many, that he started a small museum in their local library in Shelby, Montana. The collection, now rather famous, is still there. He used books to identify the various bones he found. Due to his struggle with reading, this often meant identifying them by photographs and diagrams.

Jack knew that to work in the field of paleontology, he would have to go to college. Though much of Jack’s school experiences up to that point had been steeped in failure, he had also experienced some successes. Science was the subject that Jack Horner shone in, so long as it didn’t involve much reading or spelling. He won several awards for projects that he made for the school science fairs. In fact, his high school senior science project about comparing dinosaur bones from Montana to those found in Canada was so impressive that it earned him an invitation to attend the University of Montana, then known as Montana State University in Missoula. Luckily back then, all someone needed to attend college was a high school diploma, which by the skin of his teeth, Jack had earned. He was admitted and majored in geology. Jack Horner speaks very candidly about failing college 7 times. He had to change majors several times in part so that the professors in the “new” department didn’t know who he was. Had it not been for his supportive advisor who believed in him and knew that he was neither lazy nor stupid, he would not have been allowed to continue, so poor where his grades.Try as he might, Jack could not demonstrate his mastery of the subject matter he had learned in geology, zoology, microbiology and archaeology on paper, and so never officially graduated and he left college with no degree. Jack went to work for his father’s gravel pit.

Perhaps Jack Horner’s story would have ended there if not for his passion, tenacity and the fact that he valued the knowledge that he had gained over those tumultuous years of seeming failure. Jack felt that even without a degree, he had the knowledge base of any other doctoral student with a degree in his field of study. And so, he resumed chasing his dream of working in the field of paleontology. He sent out applications to numerous museums all over the U.S. and Canada. He received 3 interviews from 3 different museums. One at Princeton University in New Jersey, one in Los Angeles, and one in Canada and was offered all three. He ended up accepting the lowest paying job at Princeton University as a technician. This turned out the be the “open door” that he would need to prove himself as a capable scientist. While working at Princeton, Jack was diagnosed with dyslexia. At last he understood why reading and writing was so difficult for him. At Princeton, Jack was eventually recognized for his extensive scientific knowledge, and was promoted to research associate. He began writing proposals for research grants. Though he wrote many successful proposals that secured the funding of several research projects, he could not sign the proposals himself because he lacked a PHD.

While visiting Montana, several years after accepting his job at Princeton, Jack Horner and a close friend discovered evidence that a species of dinosaur cared for their young and with a research grant from the National Science Foundation, began an ambitious excavation project which led to the first discovery of a clutch of dinosaur eggs in North America. Jack was also the very first scientist to crack open a dinosaur egg, and therefore discovered the first dinosaur embryo!

In 1982, a funny thing happened. The same university that had failed Jack Horner 7 times and denied him a degree, recruited him to come and work for them as a paleontologist! Jack happily accepted, and was eager to return to his home state of Montana. Jack Horner proceeded to build a world-recognized dinosaur program responsible for many amazing discoveries in paleontology. Some years after that, the University of Montana finally granted Jack his hard-earned degree in the form of an honorary PHD. Not only that, but they even made Jack a professor of paleontology!

Jack’s impressive knowledge of dinosaurs and his passion gained him the attention of one Steven Spielberg (another famous and wildly successful dyslexic). Spielberg was working on the 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park and needed a dinosaur expert to help make it as realistic as possible. Jack continued to work as an advisor on all of the sequels that followed Jurassic Park.

Jack is not at all bitter about being dyslexic and even credits this brain difference and the experience that came with it for his success. He continues to make breakthroughs in the field of paleontology, and as mentioned, is working on engineering a dino-chicken, or as Jack calls it a “chickenosaurus”. For more on that, watch the videos below.

Children with dyslexia often struggle in the school setting, where it is often very difficult for them to prove their intelligence on paper. While it is critical to get them the explicit help that they need in reading and writing, it is equally important to help them find their strengths and interests. This is what Jack Horner’s mother did for him. By giving him plenty of opportunities to experience success, passion, and a love of learning, he was able to prove himself to himself, and that was everything. Little did his mother know while driving Jack from dig site to dig site that one day her little boy would go on to win the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship Award, widely known as the “Genius Grant”. She only knew that he loved dinosaurs, and that was enough.

To hear Jack’s story from his own perspective, click on this link to listen to a talk he did for Dyslexic Advantage on dyslexia and talent, watch the video below.


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