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Fossil fanatic is a whiz at digging up history about Florida

RUSKIN

Frank Garcia seldom travels without a homely little dog by the name of Webster. When Frank takes out his boat, Webster perches on the bow and howls at the laughing gulls. When Frank drives his truck, Webster sprawls in his lap and stares out the window at passing scenery.

"Webster is my best friend," Frank says about his hard-on-the-eyes dachshund-chihuahua mix who endured back surgery and a painful rehabilitation years ago. When Frank underwent painful back surgery of his own he felt inspired by Webster's courage.

The name Frank Garcia is well known to paleontologists throughout North America. An amateur, he has discovered priceless Ice Age fossils in river bottoms, roadbeds and mines all over Florida. Some animal fossils, unknown to science when found, were later named after him by university-trained paleontologists. The Smithsonian is among the museums that store his finds.

He's 64 now and a little worse for the wear. A paleontologist requires a healthy back for hunkering, digging and lifting. After his back surgery Frank wondered if his days of challenging field work were over. Then he'd look at his crippled best friend and grab a shovel. Webster, despite his own bad back, never gave up hunting for a good bone.

A while back, Frank and Webster were hunting fossils in a shell mine in southern Hillsborough County. As always, Frank searched for bones where the bulldozer operator had uncovered layers of rock. Frank dug without finding anything significant. As dusk approached, he whistled for Webster, who was digging frantically in the distance.

Webster always comes when called. This time he didn't.

"WEBSTER!"

His back bothering him, Frank felt irritable. He limped over and peered into Webster's growing excavation.

"WEBSTER!" Frank Garcia shouted. "WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND?"

Talk about a good bone.

Frank Garcia became Florida's bone man by accident. He was born in New York City in 1946, moved to Tampa and failed first grade. "Not good for my self-esteem," he says now. On a visit to his grandparents when he was 10, he found fossils on the edge of a lake.

Back in Tampa, the excited child carried the bones to a University of South Florida paleontologist. "From a camel," the paleontologist told him.

"We had camels in Florida?" the boy asked.

"We had camels in Florida," the scientist said. "We had elephants and rhinos and animals like giraffes."

Frank was a good athlete and had a fine singing voice. But given his low self-esteem and undiagnosed attention-deficit problems he wasn't considered college material. Finding fossils was his passion, but to put food on the table he worked with his hands.

The young man destined to become Florida's best-known paleontologist made a living removing asbestos from buildings. At night he dreamed of Thomas Jefferson, the nation's first real amateur paleontologist. Sometimes in dreams they talked about fossils. Sometimes in dreams they drove to Ybor for black beans and rice, drank cafe con leche and smoked cigars. Then they started digging for old manatee bones.

A romantic — the kind of man who buys flowers and sings to his dates — Frank fell in love easily. Over the years, he has worn out five wives, whom he absolves for marital discord. "I'm high energy," he says. "And maybe I'm a little crazy, too."

Webster, his little dog, calms him down. Frank jokes about thoughts that swing across his mind like a monkey through the trees. He's thinking of a place he'd like to look for fossils, a song he plans to sing at a karaoke bar or the meal he intends to prepare for his latest love, Kellee Suarez, whom he met while warbling a Neil Diamond song at a party. She sang Peel Me a Grape by Diana Krall back at him. It was kismet.

• • •

One time, before Webster came into his life, Frank was diving for fossils in Central Florida's murky Peace River. He had just picked up a tooth from a mammoth, an ancient elephant, when his elbow touched something that moved. The largest alligator he had ever seen was inches away, jaws gaping. Frank dropped the tooth and swam like Tarzan.

Another time, at a phosphate mine, Frank lost his temper after a frustrating day and flung his digging tool, which happened to be a screwdriver, with all his might. Feeling foolish, he went looking for the tool, which turned out to be lying next to five beautiful prehistoric rhinoceros molars.

"When other people see rock," he says, "I see bone. I see the jaw of a prehistoric horse or the skeleton of a giant tree sloth. I'm lucky that way."

One time, after breaking his leg, he went fossil hunting in a cast, against the advice of his doctor and the wishes of a frustrated wife.

He was alone at dusk when he lost his balance and slid dangerously into a phosphate pit. Sticking out of the ground at the bottom was the strangest skull he had ever encountered, half giraffe, half zebra, but with peculiar twisted antlers. With adrenaline running, he had no trouble climbing out of the hole, cast and all.

He sent his discovery to the University of Florida, where paleontologist David Webb named it Kyptoceras amatorum — or "crooked-horned amateur." Webb had honored Garcia and other amateurs who contribute much to the science of paleontology.

At another phosphate pit Frank uncovered the skeleton of a dwarf sea cow, which Howard University's Dr. Daryl Dom- ning, who worked at the Smithsonian, named Nano siren garciae.

"He has this extraordinary ability to find fossils in the field,'' Domning says now. "He spends a lot of time out there and has this amazing eye, intuition and knowledge. He has talents that paleontologists with formal training don't have. It's something you can't really teach."

• • •

Frank Garcia likes to think Webster is the most interesting dog on the planet. Of course, he also jokes that "I'm the world's most interesting man," which suggests his days of low self-esteem are behind him.

As he recovered from back surgery, Frank discovered he could still hit a golf ball 300 yards and hold his own on the tennis court if he chose opponents carefully. He says he makes the world's best spaghetti sauce and "you ought to taste my chicken and yellow rice."

His once-dark curly hair has turned gray, but his chin still sports a handsome dimple deep enough to hide a small shark's tooth. He wears a gold hoop in his left ear and owns dozens of stylish sunglasses he wears according to his mood.

Retired from asbestos removal, he remains healthy except for his back. He has a pension and money in the bank. He sells the occasional fossil, hires himself out as a consultant and leads bone-hunting tours in Nebraska.

"I'm the luckiest guy in the world,'' he says.

The vanity plate on his Toyota pickup says "Ice Age.''

Frank calls himself "the king of karaoke." He has won contests throughout Florida; his elastic voice can imitate Ray Charles one moment and Roy Orbison the next. He once won a contest singing Oh, Pretty Woman.

He wrote a song called Corazon de Tampa about the city he loves. When he listens to the recording, which was inspired by his Ybor childhood, his eyes well with tears. "I want to develop it into a Broadway musical,'' he whispers.

When his girlfriend, Kellee, is away, Webster is the audience. By all appearances the little dog seems to enjoy Frank's version of Besame Mucho, an oldie also known as Kiss Me Much. The world's most interesting dog never hesitates to kiss the world's most interesting man.

• • •

A famous Frank Garcia story:

It's 1981. A guy named Bud Leisey has a permit to mine rock for road fill in a pit near Hillsborough County's Cockroach Bay. Frank haunts phosphate and road-fill mines; they're good places to find fossils. Leisey gives Frank permission to hunt on the property.

Relying on his intuition and the way the fossils line up in the layers of rock, Frank feels confident he is on the verge of a big discovery. In fact, he is sure Leisey's pit is covering up an ancient river bend. River bends tend to be collection points.

Now it's 1983. Frank drops by the mine to say hello. In passing, a clerk mentions something interesting. A bulldozer operator this morning hit some big bones.

Frank sprints out of the shell-mine office, leaps into his truck and speeds toward the new excavation. As lightning flashes in a downpour, he spies huge fossilized bones — some 10 feet long — protruding from the shell bed. He's an emotional man and weeps, believing he has just discovered one of the richest Ice Age fossil sites in history.

Turns out he's right.

The New York Times puts him on the front page and the Today show puts him on the air. He is written up in the science journals and paleontologists from all over the world head for Ruskin to see what a first-grade flunker has found.

He shows off one of the best saber cat skulls anyone has ever seen. He has discovered the bones from the largest condor ever known, a bird with a 23-foot wingspan. He shows off the bones of ancient crocodilians, wolves, bears and great white sharks. He finds the bones of a giant beaver unknown to science.

Frank and his helpers truck the bones to museums all over the country, including a little one Frank starts in Ruskin, the Paleo Preserve, within a Hillsborough County park known as Camp Bayou. To this day Frank uses the museum to teach kids about fossils. To fire their imaginations he shows them the skull he found of a crocodile that once lived in Florida.

The animal was 32 feet long.

• • •

In 1999, his fifth wife, Dixie, acquired the black-and-brown puppy, named him Webster and gave him to Frank as a gift. When Dixie divorced Frank — Frank tells people it was the lowest moment in his life — Webster helped keep him sane.

In 2004, Webster's physical troubles began with a swim.

He was about 5 at the time — a middle-aged dog that should have been a little more careful. Frank was speeding across the bay in his boat, with Webster in his favorite place on the bow, when a great blue heron flapped defiantly past. Lunging after the haughty bird, Webster crashed into the water hard.

At first, Frank thought Webster was going to be fine. But a few days later Webster lost the ability to walk. Even with back surgery, the veterinarian said, Webster might remain paralyzed or even die. Putting the dog to sleep was mentioned as an alternative.

"I'm not going to kill my best friend," Frank said.

After six hours of surgery, Webster was confined to a narrow cage to prevent movement. As Webster cried with pain, Frank cried in sympathy. When Webster became incontinent over the next month, Frank massaged the little dog's back above the bladder until he got better. Next, Frank invented a sling to support Webster's weakened back legs while he learned to walk again.

When he was young and athletic, Webster weighed 15 pounds and ran like the wind. Now he weighs 20 pounds and is incapable of catching rabbits, squirrels or birds. His front legs work okay but his rear sways like the back end of a hook-and-ladder fire truck turning a corner.

• • •

"WEBSTER!" Frank Garcia shouted. "WHAT HAVE YOU FOUND?"

It was June 21, 2009.

Webster guarded his excavation in the shell pit and managed to look proud.

In the hole was a thin sliver of rock about the size of a coffee saucer. Somebody else might have walked by, but Frank recognized the rock as fossilized bone.

Frank started digging next to Webster. Plate by plate he uncovered sections of a giant, prehistoric tortoise, half a million years old. It's unusual to find every bone from a skeleton intact, but Frank found them all.

A friend in north Florida, Karen Chadwick, known for fossil restorations, assembled the skeleton.

In life, the tortoise had been larger than the tortoises found today in the Galapagos Islands near South America. Webster's tortoise from Hillsborough County, known as Geochelone crassiscutata, had measured more than 4 feet long and about 30 inches tall, and probably weighed 800 pounds.

Frank found scrapings from the teeth of giant alligators on the shell. "They must have tried to drag him into the water," Frank told paleontologists.

In 2011, Frank and Webster continue their work. So far, they have dug up a dozen other tortoise skeletons. Frank believes Webster may have discovered something priceless — North America's most significant site for prehistoric land tortoises.

Frank keeps the perfect tortoise skeleton in his den. Sometimes Webster climbs on top of it, but he can also fit inside.

In dog years, Webster is an old man, pushing a century. It's hard for Frank to envision a world without Webster.

"I've gotten a lot of credit for my discoveries," he tells people. "I want Webster to get credit for this one. You know, he's my best friend."

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8727.

To arrange for a visit to the Paleo Preserve in
Hillsborough County, call (813) 641-7691 or e-mail
garciafossilfinder@yahoo.com.

To see video of Frank Garcia, go to links.tampabay.com.

Fossil fanatic is a whiz at digging up history about Florida 06/15/11 [Last modified: Friday, June 17, 2011 3:51pm]

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