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SUNY Potsdam gets a donation that rocks their geology department

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POTSDAM — They’re not as dear as diamonds, but they’re worth their weight in gold.

A donation in size never seen before, a collection of 14 old wooden crates full of carefully wrapped minerals and unique rocks was handed over to SUNY Potsdam’s Geology Department. The collection was discovered in the Norwood home of Laura Bishop Patterson, who died in 2011.

SUNY Potsdam Associate Professor Christopher R. Kelson said the collection had been sitting for some time, each stone wrapped in newspaper or other periodicals from 1904 and 1956.

Mr. Kelson said whoever collected the minerals had an eye for “the good stuff” and the wherewithal to label them.

“In the world of geology it is really important to know what it is you had a sample of and where it comes from,” he said. “So for these samples to have labels on them about what they are and where they came from is really critical.”

But who that person was is a mystery.

The donation of the collection came from Mrs. Patterson’s stepson Jerry Patterson and his wife, Beth. Mr. Kelson said the couple deserves as many credit as the original collector, as the crates could have been easily discarded.

Beth Patterson said she and her husband discovered the collection while clearing out her deceased mother-in-law’s home on Prospect Street in Norwood.

“If you look at the dates of the papers that they were wrapped in, the dates are too old for my mother-in-law, who was born in 1927,” she said.

Ruling out her mother-in-law as the collector, Mrs. Patterson said there was no one in the extended family who collected minerals or stones.

“So we don’t really have any clue,” she said. “For all we know maybe they were in that barn when she bought the house and never looked at what they were.”

Mrs. Patterson, a teacher at Potsdam High School, contacted the earth sciences teacher at the school to see if the rocks would be of some use to the department.

“So I brought one random crate in, not knowing that there was more,” Mrs. Patterson said, “and when we started cleaning up the barn in earnest, we just kept finding more and more and more. Some of them were labeled in these very efficient details, no dates on the labels but places where they have been identified … so I thought, ‘Gee what am I going to do these things?’”

On a whim, Mrs. Patterson reached out to SUNY Potsdam Geology Department Chairman Robert L. Badger.

“It wasn’t the kind of stuff you would sell mindlessly to someone, so I contacted Dr. Badger,” Mrs. Patterson said. “I just figured they would be of some use to someone, with all the educational institutions in the county.”

Mr. Badger agreed. As he began unwrapping the collection, he knew the school was getting something very unique.

“There are a bunch of things that we didn’t have before that we found in this collection,” Mr. Badger said. “The purple rock that I was holding, purple scapolite, I’ve seen before, but it was white. I’ve never seen purple.”

And therein lies the importance of the donation — the educational value, Mr. Badger said.

The wider the range of minerals the school has for its collection, the better the education for the students.

“If I had gone to schools that had purple scapolite, I would have heard of it before, but we didn’t have that,” Mr. Badger said. “So it just gives our students a wider breadth of knowledge of samples to study “

“We’re not looking at diamonds that are worth a lot of money,” Mr. Badger added, “but these are things that you might see a gem collector sell for a dollar or two.”

There are several possible options for the collection including putting them on display in the Timerman Geology Museum in Timerman Hall on the SUNY Potsdam campus for the community to study.

However, the school will consider using the stones in its mineralogy teaching collections so that the students can get the hands-on experience needed for the field.

“You can’t teach any aspect of mineralogy just by textbook,” Mr. Kelson said. “By definition, this is a science where you are getting your hands dirty. So if you can’t hold that in your hand, you aren’t going to get much use out of it.”

Mr. Kelson has been at SUNY Potsdam since 2006 and Mr. Badger since 1989, and both men said this was the first time they had ever seen a donation of this size.

“Funds are short, and there isn’t enough money to go and buy minerals,” Mr. Kelson said, “so collections like this that are donated to the department for use are worth their weight in gold.”

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