Wann Langston, Jr. 1921-2013
April 9, 2013
I first met Wann at SVP in 1997, in Chicago. I was an undergrad, still three months away from my B.S., presenting a poster arguing that OMNH 53062 (which would eventually become the holotype of Sauroposeidon) was a new sauropod. At the time the only named sauropods from the Early Cretaceous of North America were Astrodon/Pleurocoelus and Sonorasaurus, and owing to the slow spread of news back then, I hadn’t heard of Sonorasaurus yet. So the bar was pretty high for arguing that EKNApod material shouldn’t just be lumped into Pleurocoelus. The person I was most fearing in the world was Wann Langston, Jr., who had referred the EK Texas sauropod material to Pleurocoelus in his magisterial 1974 paper. And in due course he arrived at my poster. If he remembered it at all, he probably remembered just walking up to chat with some kid. But for me it was like watching one of those giant saucers descend from space in Independence Day. As Jeff Goldblum said in one of the Jurassic Park movies, I was terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.
But then Wann turned out to be a totally fair, reasonable human being–if a wee bit gruff at first. He let me give a little spiel and then asked the dreaded question, “Why isn’t this Pleurocoelus?” I had some thoughts on that, and we talked it through, and if he didn’t agree in every particular, he at least allowed that what I was saying made some sense. He later served as a reviewer on the paper in which we described Sauroposeidon and didn’t shoot us down, so apparently he was convinced, or at least thought the hypothesis deserved its day in the sun.
A couple of years later Julian Hilliard and I were working on our MS theses under Rich Cifelli, and we realized that we both needed to see some specimens in Austin (Julian was working on tooth morphotypes in crocs), so we drove down together one Friday evening. Without much warning, in fact–we basically crashed Ernie Lundelius’s retirement party at the Texas Memorial Museum. But everyone welcomed us like we belonged there. We had planned to spend the next day in collections, but we had neglected to make arrangements in advance (this is not a story about the correct way to make museum collections visits). Wann saw us fumbling around the museum like a couple of idiots and pulled us into his office–I thought for a reaming out, but in fact for nearly the opposite. He basically took us under his wing. Wann talked with Julian for an hour about crocs and their teeth, speaking authoritatively and at length–he was clearly still well up to speed on the field. I listened and learned. Then he talked with me for an hour about sauropods, with an equally broad and deep knowledge base, while Julian listened and learned. Then he showed us the Quetzalcoatlus material and talked to us about pterosaurs for an hour, just as impressively, while we both listened and learned. And then he turned us loose in the collections, checking periodically to make sure we were finding what we needed. He turned what would have been a so-so trip or maybe even a disaster into one of the best museum visits I’ve ever had, when he would have been perfectly justified in chucking us out on our ears. I need to remember to pay that forward someday.
I kept up with Wann at SVP thereafter. He was always thinking out ahead of the field, and I always came away from those conversations with new thoughts in my head.
I’ve been going to SVPCA instead of SVP for the past few years, so I probably haven’t seen Wann in 5 or 6 years. And now I won’t see him again–he passed away yesterday. But he leaves behind as impressive a legacy as one could wish for, not just in the fossils he found and the papers he published, but in the lives that he touched. Including mine. Farewell, Wann. You are already missed.
Langston, Jr., W. 1974. Nonmammalian Comanchean tetrapods. Geoscience and Man 8:77-102.