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Remembering Dr. Paul Tucker

September 14, 2016

When I first took the job of Curator of Geology at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, the Geology Collection and I were housed off-site in Cary, NC, about 20 minutes from the museum proper. One spring day, I had a visitor who dropped in to ask if I wanted to see his collection. There were some specimens in the trunk of his car. Normally I get more requests for this than I can accommodate, but this guy was friendly and insistent. It was springtime and I didn’t feel like working.

The first specimen was a chunk of pegmatite from the Crabtree Emerald Mine, shot through with emeralds. It was the size of a small cantaloupe. The second piece was a large gold nugget from the Reed Gold Mine. Later we were able to trace its provenance to a German museum, probably where John Reed was mailing gold back to family in Germany. That was how I met Dr. Paul Tucker.

Paul was a professor in the Textiles Department at North Carolina State University, more or less retired when I met him. One of his lifelong avocations was collecting the minerals of North Carolina. In this pursuit, he combined an in-depth knowledge of the state’s mining history with an encyclopedic memory of famous collecting sites. His choices were uniquely dramatic or beautiful, each worthy of museum display. He would laugh that he couldn’t stop working because he was still buying minerals.


Kyanite from Balsam Gap, discovered by Luther Thomas.


William Earl Hidden’s business card, Photo by Jeff Scovil.

What a collection! I described parts of it in an article for Rock & Mineral in 2008 (Volume 83, September/October). Micromounts of twinned monazite. Pegmatite minerals from Spruce Pine and Hiddenite. Emeralds from every locality in the state. Corundums, rubies and sapphires from obscure and well-known localitites. Pseudomorphs of all sorts. A gigantic specimen of Luther Thomas’ gem-quality kyanite, in matrix. The crown jewels were the Reed Mine gold nugget, and William Earl Hidden’s business card, with the “first crystal of hiddenite found in place” inserted through the card. I would have given up the entire collection for just those last two items.

I convinced Paul to exhibit his collection at the Museum of Natural Sciences, a 2005 exhibit titled Treasures Unearthed. Reviewing his collection (four times in all) required locating the plastic box containing the specimens, cutting the duct tape holding it closed, pulling out the bubble wrap or plastic wadding protecting the inner box, opening that box by cutting the tape, removing more protective wrapping, and gently removing the treasure within. The process was invariably rewarding, revealing a beautiful specimen each time. It would be measured, photographed, and notes taken on its significance and importance. Then the process was repeated in reverse with much plastic and tape before going on to the next box. Paul and I had a lot of fun with that. He had even more fun with a game called “stump the curator.” The hands-down winner was a golden euhedral muscovite so fine that the sheets were not visible from the side. The hexagonal crystal shape was subdued, so it appeared to be four-sided crystals. He enjoyed fooling me immensely, even more so when one of my textbooks contained a very similar picture of euhedral muscovite.


Quartz crystals on rutile, the iconic image chosen for Treasures Unearthed. Photo by Jeff Scovil.

The exhibit itself was a success, with Paul more than anyone. He photographed everything, and visited the exhibit regularly. Afterwards, he decided that his collection should come to us. He could not afford to give it to us outright, but he made us a bargain basement price. SAS Institute purchased the entire collection, including mining memorabilia, and donated it to the Museum of Natural Sciences in 2006. It now forms the nucleus of the exhibits on the second floor of the Nature Exploration Center. Other portions of the exhibits from Treasures Unearthed live on in the Colburn Earth Science Museum in Asheville, and the McKinney Geology Teaching Museum at Appalachian State University in Boone.

We kept in touch after the exhibit. He was one of the few people who had an open invitation to visit any time. I would run into him at the grocery, or mineral shows, or on the exhibit floor, and we would catch up. He always had news from the mineral collecting community. I came to expect voicemail messages on my office phone, usually two or three in a row, left late at night, finishing conversations we had started earlier. An awful thought once crossed his mind, that I might slice up a specimen for research. He had my cell number, so at 11:30 one evening I reassured him that I would never cut up exhibit quality minerals, even in the interests of science.

Paul Tucker had only one requirement for all of the exhibit: that his name be kept out of it. He wanted to be totally anonymous.  I don’t think I have a picture of Paul, just one of his hands holding a polished slab of emerald-rich pegmatite from the Crabtree Mine, shown at the top of this page. I did not learn of his death until some months after it happened. In keeping with his love of privacy, there was no obituary, and no memorial service. He is survived by his wife, Lynn Tucker.

There were many facets to Dr. Paul Tucker. He loved to travel, especially in North Carolina, along well-loved paths to mineral shows, to duck decoy exhibitions, and to the pottery centers of the state. He loved puttering in his yard and growing wild flowers. He was friendly and very slow to anger. The only time I saw him annoyed was in a discussion over rainproof textiles.  His quiet persistence was very well-known to mineral dealers all over the United States. His visits were always an event. Paul was a reliable source of good advice, pushing me into writing for Lithographie Press and for Rocks & Minerals. My life is better because of Paul Tucker, and the world is poorer without him. The Geology Collection of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences owes him a great debt for his lifelong work.



One Comment leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Jones permalink
    September 19, 2016 3:19 am

    A great piece. Thanks for this.

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