In Honor of Women’s History Month this year, I decided to start a new mini-series: Awesome Women Paving Their Own Way. We’re going to talk about women who lived their dreams, women who achieved financial independence, and just all-around badass women. Some will be contemporary women, and some may be historical women – but they will have in common that they were fantastic and did their own thing. Today, that woman is Sue Hendrickson.
Have you heard of here? I hadn’t, until very recently, which is incredibly sad. You see, her namesake is one of Chicago’s biggest tourist attractions, pride and joy of the city that came to us in the early 2000s. And trust me, if you lived in Chicago, it was (and still is!) a huge deal. So why didn’t I know that there was a remarkable woman behind it?
Of course, I’m talking about the Field Museum of Natural History’s pride and joy, Sue. She’s one of the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossils ever discovered. And Sue Hendrickson is the woman who discovered her.
Sue Hendrickson is my new hero. She embraced passion fire before it was cool (is it even cool yet?). Instead of completing high school, Hendrickson moved to Florida and became a professional diver. Although she mainly was diving for aquariums at first, she knew how to network. Her friends included salvage divers, and she was invited to participate in that type of work as well. Hendrickson’s diving ability allowed her to explore old shipwrecks and search them for artifacts.
Sue Hendrickson was also passionate about paleontology. She would volunteer to assist in digs over the summers and even worked as an amber miner in the Dominican Republic. She became highly skilled at discovering insects in amber, and this work, along with her experience as a shipwreck diver, gained her some credibility in the archaeology/paleontology world.
Hendrickson met Paleontologist Kirby Siber during her many adventures, first joining his team to excavate baleen whale fossils in Peru and then joining him at the Black Hills Institute in South Dakota.
It was in South Dakota that the iconic T-Rex fossil was discovered. It was late summer 1990. The team had just completed the discovery of an Edmontosaurus specimen and was getting ready to call it a day. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it), the truck got a flat tire. While most of the group was working on getting this fixed, Hendrickson decided to explore some nearby cliffs, which the team hadn’t reached to yet.
Hendrickson discovered some small pieces of bone as she walked along the cliff. Looking up, she noticed larger bones coming out of the side. She collected the small bones and brought them back to camp where Peter Larson, the president of the Black Hills Institute, identified them as Tyrannosaurus. The team then started their excavation work.
Sue was the largest and most complete T. rex fossil discovered at the time. Once she was fully excavated, her bones were put up for auction. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago put up the winning bid of 7.6 million dollars – the highest amount ever paid for a dinosaur fossil.
Why Sue Hendrickson is So Awesome
There are tons of women paving their way that I could have chosen to feature first in our mini-series, so why pick Sue Hendrickson?
I admire her because she completely bucked convention and did whatever she wanted. Although she eventually went back to get her GED, she quit high school to be a diver. Now, I think education is essential, and I don’t encourage the younger generations to do the same, but think about how much courage and passion it took for her to do that. How passionate is she about diving and paleontology that she just went after it and achieved such amazing things without even having a background in it?
Why Sue Hendrickson’s Story Makes Me Sad
I think about all of the fantastic things Sue Hendrickson accomplished thirty years ago, and although I’m thrilled for her and think she’s amazing, it also makes me a little sad. Maybe I’m just not innovative enough, but I can’t see how any of that would be possible today.
I’ve looked into getting included in an archaeological dig – and it’s not easy. Some require a degree in archaeology (super specific!), others are only offered as part of your course work at a university, and still, others want you to pay for the privilege. It’s so saturated that they can get people to pay to do it! Most, however, are just on a volunteer basis. How can you afford life if your spend three months in a non-paid status?
Let’s take a look at when Hendrickson discovered Sue. The nineties were when kids were being told that the only path forward in life was through a college education. Get yourself saddled with thousands of dollars of debt – that’s the only way forward. You may be in debt the rest of your life and never be able to truly pursue your passions, but at least you will have a decent-paying job. I don’t know if that attitude is better or worse now, but I do know that it’s challenging to get a job in any science field without a degree. Gone are the days when we could be passionate explorers and live a life full of discovery. Instead, we are trapped in debt and miserable jobs.
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
I know I got myself stuck. I’m the one who adopted six pets that make mobility difficult. No one signed any of the debt for me; I did that to myself. But, I think it’s important to realize that maybe these things can still be done. Perhaps we can still be passionate explorers. But first, we need to take care of ourselves and our families. That’s where Passion Fire comes in, and that’s why Sue Hendrickson’s story resonated with me. Maybe there is still opportunity out there for those willing to buck convention and go after it.
What Awesome Woman is Your Hero?
Is there an extraordinary woman who paved her own way that you look up to? Tell me about it in the comments! I’m going to be looking for women to feature in this series!