GRAY - Peering through a microscope, former East Tennessee State University first lady Martha Street Culp on Thursday got a firsthand glimpse at the sort of scientific discoveries taking place at the Gray Fossil Site.
As ETSU Foundation members toured the university's new visitors center at the site, Culp was able to view an ancient rodent jaw that volunteer Wayne Robertson had just found while combing through soil removed from one of the site's digs.
"That's a beautiful specimen there, and certainly it's very rare," Culp said after viewing the tiny fossil. "They're very happy to find that. There are three teeth on it. They say it's rare to find rodent like that."
Culp, whose hobbies include studying and writing about the region's geology, savored the opportunity to see the center's labs and exhibits.
"When I saw that first headline (from the site's discovery in 2000) - I had worked all night and read my morning paper before I went to bed - I knew this was a world-class find," said Culp, whose late husband was ETSU's fourth president, D.P. Culp. "It's just wonderful to get see it.
"I wish that I could get out there and help dig."
Conducting the ETSU Foundation's annual membership meeting at the site, foundation members were treated to a preview of the 33,000-square-foot facility before it opens to the public later this summer.
As exhibits continue to take shape, scientists with ETSU's Don Sundquist Center of Excellence in Paleontology will be moving into the facility's research and preparation labs over the summer.
But foundation members were able to see staff members and volunteers clean and prepare fossils and search for new specimens on Thursday. They watched as ETSU preparator Jeff Supplee, for example, carefully brushed away soil around fossilized rhinoceros remains and a frog bone in a plaster cast removed from a pit.
ETSU scientists and center staff members also guided guests through the center's exhibit areas and onto the adjacent site to see dig locations where rhinos, tapirs, saber-tooth cats, shovel-tusked elephants, alligators, red pandas and scores of other specimens had been unearthed.
"I've been looking forward to getting here," former U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins said, noting state and federal efforts involved in the site. "This was recognized from the very beginning as one of the most important archeological sites in the whole world.
"I hope as this work goes on and this museum becomes more and more important, every schoolchild in this area will get an opportunity to come here either with their classes or with their parents to see this and hear these lectures."
Leslie Parks Pope, whom members elected as the ETSU Foundation's new chairwoman on Thursday, said she was surprised by the number of members who wanted to tour the visitors center, for the turnout was the fund-raising organization's largest in years.
"I hope that the people of the region will know that it's here and that this is a one-of-a-kind thing," she said.
Pope succeeded Tim P. Jones, who had served as the foundation's chairman since 2003. The university and the foundation honored Jones for his service by giving him a giant gavel. The former general manager of Press Inc., Jones will remain on the foundation board as immediate past chairman.