A tale of two Sues

Never find anything good because everybody wants it -- especially if it's the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered.

Published September 10, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sue Hendrickson has a knack for finding stuff. In Cuba she found an astrolabe -- the ancient precursor to today's global positioning systems -- in six feet of water, buried under coral. She's found ants and centipedes imbedded in ancient amber in Mexico and whale fossils in Peru. And in South Dakota, eight years ago, she found the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex ever recorded in the history of field paleontology. (It's now called "Sue.")

Lucky break, she figures.

How unusual is it to find a T-Rex? In the Western United States, where dinosaurs are known to have proliferated, bone fragments from the ancient beasts crunch under your feet as you walk. But that's about as close as you'll get to the granddaddy of dinos. You might find a portion of a triceratops or part of a duckbill dinosaur, maybe even a mammoth-size tooth, but never a T-Rex. Only 25 have ever been found. Sue Hendrickson, whose giant, carnivorous namesake is currently being cleaned and assembled for a show in May 2000 at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, puts it this way: "Every day we'd wake up [in the field] and jokingly say, 'Today I'm gonna get me a saber-toothed cat.' But a T-Rex? You don't even joke about that. It's too far-fetched."

With her long, blond hair graying at the edges and a lifetime of sun and sea etched into her smile, Hendrickson has looked the part of a modern-day explorer since long before Lonely Planet made it hip to trek mountains and dive reef. Once an inquisitive high school dropout from Munster, Ind., with a yen for adventure, she is now a self-taught field paleontologist and marine archaeologist, known by folks at places like the Smithsonian, National Geographic and Discovery for her keen eye, her boundless curiosity and her altruistic spirit. She's worked on projects in Peru, Egypt, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico. In fact, she's ubiquitous. Natural history museums all over the world owe a debt to Hendrickson and her work. "I'm like a kid who didn't grow up," she says. "I do all the things you wanted to do when you were young -- digging for dinosaurs and diving for shipwrecks."

Aside from unearthing "Sue," Hendrickson has also explored a Chinese trader ship from the 1500s, Cleopatra's palace and Napoleon's shipwreck (as part of a diving expedition program recently aired on the Discovery channel). She was a member of the team that discovered the famous San Diego shipwreck off the coast of the Philippines (the "Sue" of shipwrecks, she calls it); and dives shipwrecks in Cuba so regularly that she has often acted as liaison between foreign dive teams and the Cuban government.

"Those of us who do field work rely on the specimens found by amateurs," said Pete Larson, paleontologist at the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota who was with Hendrickson the day she found "Sue." He says she has "natural skill. She's meticulous. She brought me vertebra pieces [from "Sue"] and I knew immediately. We ran the whole way. It was like climbing Everest. The most exciting day of my life." It took four people 21 14-hour days to remove 1,200 tons of dirt and unearth "Sue."

Hendrickson and I met at a Seattle restaurant with enormous glass windows overlooking the water. "I don't care about the food," she'd told me over the phone, "I just want to be able to see the water." For a second you think she's one of those new age types who talk about souls and energy and healing. But then you realize she's serious. She lives for the water.

In fact, she lives on the water -- in a tiled house in the Honduran Bay Islands -- when she's not off exploring the world. It's her first permanent address in 30 years, and she shares it with her "kids"-- three dogs (who are, at this moment, waiting in the car for leftovers from her brie and salmon pizza). It occurred to me that God, great lover of irony, may have been having a little fun with Hendrickson by giving her landlocked Midwestern origins. Hendrickson's had the last laugh, though, having now spent half her life in the company of amphibians. Even back when she was growing up in Indiana, she used to hop over the Illinois border and loiter around Lake Michigan at Navy Pier.

"I hated my high school and I hated my hometown," she told a Chicago Tribune reporter recently. "I was bored."

There is what appears to be a bullet hole in the restaurant window above her head and both my forks are covered in thick, yellow crust, but we are near the water and that is all that matters. It's pouring down rain.

She tells me she almost went to college, but instead spent a year making boat sails in Seattle, where her family is now settled. She slogged through a few classes until a dean told her that it would take seven years of caffeine, deadlines, dissecting fish and taking pollution counts before she could have a Ph.D. So she went to Florida and collected tropical fish with all the other Ph.Ds. (Her mother finally quit saving college money for her when she turned 30.)

For several years after that, Hendrickson helped raise sunken planes and boats off the coast of Key West, but it wasn't until she visited the Dominican Republic on a marine archeology project that she was introduced to amber by a miner.

Formed from tree resins, amber pristinely preserves ants, scorpions, spiders, beetles and other insects, and is reminiscent of campy faux ice cubes with plastic bugs inside them. Hendrickson has collected some of the most well-known pieces in the world, many of which she sells to museums, scientists or private collectors. Others she donates. "I could be better at business," she says of her philanthropy, "but I choose not to be."

Today she shows me two pieces, each about a square inch, that she will donate to the Field Museum. One contains a spider, the other a centipede. They feel smooth in my hand, and the detail is so clear I can see the centipede's hairs. Both are 23 million years old. I hoot about never having held an object so profoundly ancient. "It's pretty neat," she says with the dry banality of a New Englander seeing a mussel shell.

Though she doesn't consider herself an expert on anything but amber, she reads all she can before each project she undertakes and admits to having friends photocopy entire books and send them to her.

Today, she is versed in extinct crustaceans, ancient olive jars, Ming vases, fossils, Chinese shipwrecks, South American geology, marine mammals and, of course, treasure chests of gold, which are apparently so common in her line of work they fail to elicit even innocuous finders-keepers melees. "The first time you find gold, you get really excited. And the second time, you still get excited and after that, gold gets less exciting."

So far she's had three offers to do a book of her life and one to do a movie. (She has photos of Steven Spielberg caressing dino "Sue's" desk-size cranium.) One high school classmate tracked her down and repeatedly offers to be her agent. Hendrickson nixes all offers. "I don't want to be packaged," she says. "I really don't feel I'm that important. Maybe it's because I'm a paleontologist, but we're really nothing. We're not even a second in the universe. Why write a book about me?"

One of her few concessions to publicity -- beyond meeting me today -- has been to allow McDonald's, which contributed part of the money along with Disney for the Field Museum's purchase of "Sue" (it sold at Sotheby's auction house for $8.3 million), to use her photo in a kids' menu filled with puzzles, mazes, quizzes. She handed me a copy when I sat down with her. "I couldn't finish the crossword puzzle," she'd quipped.

Hendrickson's jokes are rare and dry, and I get the sense that there is always a yearning emanating from her. She seems slightly uncomfortable above ground among all the jabbering humans who have suddenly come crawling out of the woodwork to immortalize her in the modern media -- myself included.

She's a sought-after creature herself since her discovery of "Sue," and she's not thrilled about it. "People tell me I should be a role model, and in theory, I'm for that, but as an individual, I like being a private person," she says. "When I'm 80, if I can still remember [my work] and I can't do it anymore, maybe then I'll come out and talk about it. I don't think that you need more female role models. I grew up and went my own way 30 years ago. I think if a girl's got it in her, she's going to go out and do it." She falls silent a moment, watches a fire boat pass by outside. Her eyes are a luminescent aquamarine.

"Do you think girls need role models?" She is genuinely asking me this question.

Quickly, she refutes being a feminist, but then admits she's not sure what feminism is. She turns 50 this December and feels slightly out of step with the times. "Isn't it fairly equal today?" she asks. Later, she asks, "What's that coming thing called? YK2?"

Yet she's no idealist, either. The discovery of "Sue" was immediately followed by a Byzantine four-way lawsuit between the Black Hills Institute (whom Hendrickson considers the moral owner); the U.S. government; Maurice Williams (on whose land "Sue" was found and who eventually received the auction dough); and the Sioux Indian tribe (of which Williams is a member). The National Guard liberated "Sue" from the Institute in the dark of night and for the next seven years Hendrickson watched her friends "being destroyed." She was so relentlessly hounded by the FBI that she avoided all but public phones for years. DNA tests were done on cigarette butts to determine if the team had worked on federal lands (they hadn't). She thought her family's phones were tapped. She met colleagues she'd known for years only in public places or had no contact at all. Sometimes she broke down and cried.

"Never find anything good," she says. "If you find something good, everybody wants it."

What the lawsuit did to Hendrickson in the end, beyond prove the pettiness of humans, was melt away any shred of faith she had in justice and the American government. "I never thought that kind of stuff would happen in the U.S.," she says. "It destroyed my last little rainbow of America. I had no idea. This wasn't a drug, it was science. I wasn't very naive to begin with, now I'm not at all. I was always saying I could do anything, never taking no for an answer. You take logic and turn it 180 degrees and that's what happened. It was the first thing in my life I couldn't fix."

Lately, Hendrickson admits to feeling her age. "Getting older is upsetting. The body giving out, all the repairs you have to do," she grimaces. "Other than that, I like the acquiring of knowledge."

Several years ago she was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had a hysterectomy. While she was diving in Egypt an infection essentially destroyed her lymph system and forces her, when she's not in the water, to keep her leg upright so it won't swell. Long periods of sitting cause her pain, and she has begun to picture herself in a more permanent place. "Now that I have the house, I don't want to leave it when I'm there," she says, "and that's scary. That shows me that I'm not just getting older, but that my priorities are changing. I'm changing. I'm satisfied with sitting still, which I never thought I would be."

Still, she sees her life as an adventure. Today, she is helping to rebuild Honduras after Hurricane Mitch devastated it last fall, and in the spring she'll go to Chicago for the Field Museum's unveiling of her gargantuan namesake.

Strangely enough, the true gender of the T-Rex is something that, according to Chris Brochu, the museum's paleontologist, will likely never be conclusively determined. Initially, everyone had assumed it was male until a German paleontologist put forth a theory based on female crocodiles having one less bone in their tails -- a theory Pete Larson tested with "Sue." For Hendrickson, though, this debate is irrelevant.

"She's massive. I like it that the biggest, baddest carnivorous animal that ever lived was a female."

By Rachel Louise Snyder

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