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A Florida son on the high plains: A love story

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image Ruskin’s Frank Garcia wears a lot of hats but he is never not a paleontologist. Colleagues describe him as one of the best fossil finders they have ever known. Mitch Traphagen photo

Frank Garcia wears many hats but he is never not a paleontologist.

By Mitch Traphagen

Frank Garcia wears many hats but he is never not a paleontologist. My interview with Garcia was scheduled a few hours before he was to have lunch with former Tampa Mayor Bill Poe. That meeting was to discuss Poe’s support of Garcia’s song, Corazon de Tampa, as the official song of the city. During my interview, however, Garcia never once looked at his watch; he never said, “I have to get ready to go.” I needed a bit more of his time for a second photo session and as we walked down to a dock in a Ruskin neighborhood, Garcia pointed at a small hill of dirt and shells, seemingly ubiquitous in South Hillsborough, stating, “That is a former Indian mound. I’ve found pottery shards in it.”

I picked up a shiny, almost diaphanous oyster shell embedded with an indescribable color, a shell utterly common, and asked him, “How old do you think this is?”

“Probably 500 years,” he replied.

A half millennium of Florida history fit neatly into my hand. I’ve seen and handled countless such shells over the years but the idea of holding history really struck me. That oyster may have been cracked open about the time Columbus was sailing into the Bahamas. For some reason, I made a point of returning it to the exact place in the dirt where I had grabbed it.

 In 1983, shortly after returning from a fossil hunting trip to Nebraska, Garcia made world headlines for finding what Dr. Clayton Ray of the Smithsonian Institution described as “a new chapter in the history of life.” It was one of the world’s richest and earliest Ice Age fossil sites at the Leisey Shell Pit near Cockroach Bay in Ruskin. In the end, more than 140 prehistoric animals were found at the site, including 10 that were previously unknown to science. Garcia has found over 30 previously undiscovered prehistoric animals, some that now bear his name in the annals of science.

Frank Garcia’s energy level could no doubt be measured in megawatts. His mother thought that it was possible that he was too joyful as a baby. By 18 months, he loved to sing and dance. In the past six and a half decades, not much has changed for him in that regard. He seems to approach everything that catches his eye with the energy of a teenager finding a first love and the smarts of a wizened old college professor. He gets so excited talking about the many things he loves that he has to stop occasionally to catch his breath — his words come out too fast to allow for breathing.

When asked for one word to describe him, he took a rare pause to think. He first said the word, “natural” but didn’t want to use it, he didn’t like how it sounded, despite that he has been able to accomplish almost everything he has set out to do.

“ADHD, I guess,” he said laughing.

And with that acronym, Garcia effectively managed to cram four words into his answer.

“My life has gone like a supersonic jet,” he continued. “I looked back at yesterday and I was just a little kid and now I’m 66. That means I’m coming to the end of the flight and looking back. I realize, wow, it’s been fast and I had a great time. Life really is about the journey.”

The discovery at the shell pit changed his life, but his love of paleontology has not changed. Today he takes clients to a ranch he has leased in Nebraska for fossil hunting missions. Those clients have included CEOs, scientists, politicians, celebrities, spies and everyday Joes. He also works at the Paleo Preserve at Camp Bayou in Ruskin, gives presentations and lectures everywhere from elementary schools to exclusive clubs at Yale and can belt out some mean tunes with close friends in the ultimate man-cave he calls “The Rex Room.”

Despite that he made his mark in Florida, Nebraska is special, very special. He has written a book about Nebraska and his time there, entitled I Left My Heart on the Arner Ranch.

“It is just a very spiritual experience,” he said of being on his ranch. “It’s rare for people to not find fossils up there, but even if you don’t , you can find something far more valuable. You can find out what life is all about.”

Apparently, he’s not the only one to think that. Not only have some of his clients made dozens of repeated trips, eight or nine of them have bought homes up there.

Inside of Frank Garcia’s brain is a ground-penetrating radar for fossils. Colleagues at some of the most prestigious scientific institutes in the nation have described him as one of the best fossil finders they have ever known. But more than that, he knows the fossils with a seemingly infinite string of names, and he knows how they lived.

“Nebraska was like an experimentation in evolution and it was incredible,” he said. “I’ve read the Bible, I love the Bible, but I believe in evolution because I’ve had my hands in it all of my life. Life is exhilarating. It is amazing everywhere you go, but it’s more amazing up there. There were rhinos and camels. There were oreodonts [sheep with fangs]. It was an amazing dichotomy of life.”

Garcia, too, is a dichotomy of sorts. It would seem to be a long road from the hot streets of Tampa to the high plains of rural Nebraska and there are few similarities between the two places he loves. It is amazing that both are contained in the same nation. But it turns out that, historically and comparatively, Florida and Nebraska may not be all that different for him. In the Nebraska panhandle, there is a boulder of some mystery, possibly a marker or a gravestone dating back to the late 1700s or early 1800s. A name is engraved on the boulder: Celedonio Garcia. Perhaps it is more than the fossils preserved on the arid prairie that has been calling him for all these years.

“The people up there have such a graceful way of living,” he said. “The Arner Ranch is like being way back in the 1920s; they are still in the same mindset. They have something special up there and they share it.”

His lunch with a former mayor to line up support for his song celebrating Tampa with a Cuban beat was fast approaching. His bags are packed for Nebraska and the sun is gleaming off the shells of a former Indian mound containing a history that few will ever see. Who is Frank Garcia? The list is long — a Navy vet, a songwriter, a lecturer, an author, a promoter, a scientist, a father, a paleontologist — and he still likes to sing and dance. He isn’t finished yet and in everything he does, he pours megawatts of energy and remains true to himself. He says that his grammar is horrible, but he knows that he can paint pictures. He hopes that readers of his new book will like what he paints.

“This is a love story,” he said referring to the book. “It is a love story between people, people who really go up there and find themselves. Up there is real life, it presents itself to you in such a natural and beautiful way that you can’t help but get drawn into it. You are out there not only finding this stuff, but you are actually living in it.”

He takes a breath.

“Attitude is everything,” he said. “It’s OK to be yourself. That’s important.”

He hasn’t checked his watch yet, but it’s time for lunch.

Frank Garcia will appear at Ybor Grille at 105 East Shell Point Road in Ruskin for a book signing tentatively scheduled for Saturday, October 6 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. “Everyone who buys a book will get a free fossil from the Arner Ranch,” he said. While supplies last, of course.

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