Thursday August 16, 2018
Connie Kite recently had the opportunity to visit with a very old friend, one she had not seen in six decades. For the long awaited rendezvous, the South Burlington resident traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts as the reunion could only happen at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Once there, not much was said, nor did it need to, for Kite’s friend is a 42-foot-long prehistoric marine reptile called a Kronosaurus.
It all began after Kite’s graduation from Earlham College in 1957, when she was hired by the Harvard museum’s fossil prep lab to work on early mammal material from Nova Scotia. Describing the collection as very small, rodent-type specimens from the Pennsylvanian period, she says, “I carefully cut away the matrix rock with dental tools to expose the bones. Many were expected to be new species, but not yet studied and described for the literature.”
Kite recalls being hired, “I may have gotten the job because, during my interview with Dr. Alfred Romer, he quoted a snippet of lyric from Gershwin’s ‘Of Thee I Sing.’ I chimed in with the rest of it. There we were, singing a duet in a job interview!”
Working in the lab, Kite never thought she would be called upon to pose in a photo shoot, but that is just what happened one day in 1958 when the museum was having their new Kronosaurus specimen photographed. The goal was to make a postcard to sell in the museum giftshop. Kite explains, “Dr. Romer’s office called down to the lab and asked if I had a red dress and to go home and get it because the photographer was already there, and the woman scheduled to pose was in the hospital.”
Thus was the origin of Constance Kite posing in a smart red dress while appearing to pat the ancient reptile on the cheek. It is an indelible image that long after Kite left the fossil lab, remains a part of Harvard Museum’s history to this day.
The photogenic Kronosaurus is among the largest plesiosaurs, which are an order of marine reptiles first appearing approximately 125 million years ago. Named after the mythical Kronos who, according to Greek mythology, is the father of Zeus and Poseidon. Kite says the Harvard specimen was originally found in the 1930s, “It languished in storage until Dr. Romer got a large donation from Henry Cabot Lodge, who liked sea monsters, to fund its preparation and mounting.”
Now known as The Harvard Kronosaurus, it has become a tourist icon of sorts in Queensland, Australia where it was originally found. Kite offers, “Google ‘Kronosaurus’ and you’ll find an Australian life-size cartoony model, sort of like Champ, as well as the original picture of me.” She also shares that the postcard of her in that red dress next to the plesiosaur skeleton has received fame of a different sort. It can be found online under the heading of “bad postcards,” probably due to the unlikely pair in the photograph. Kite wryly adds, “Don’t know why, but it’s apparently had a lot of circulation.”
The Harvard Kronosaurus resides in the museum’s Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology, named after the same paleontologist and professor who hired Kite in the 50s. Beyond singing with him, Kite says, “Dr. Romer wrote the textbooks I studied in college, I was so in awe of him. I audited one of his courses while I was there, comparative anatomy. His lectures were astounding.” The Harvard professor is well known as identifying a gap in the fossil timeline, called “Romer’s Gap,” and had a long career as one of the world’s leading paleontologists.
Kite’s son, Kenric, made the recent visit to Cambridge happen. Having first seen the image of his mother on the museum postcard when he was a kid, Kenric, a 1982 graduate of South Burlington High School, made a point of visiting the Harvard Kronosaurus for himself in 2003. “I was in awe at the size of it, especially the jaw, which could hold a person. Since that time I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to bring her back to see it.” He adds, “It was my sister Kirsten, however that suggested re-enacting the photo. It was really just coincidence that the event took place 60 years after the original.”
As industrious as his mother, Kenric emailed the museum the 1950s picture. Explaining that it was his mom posing in that unforgettable image, he posed the question. Could his mother replicate the image and visit the Kronosaurus one more time?
“They really rolled out the red carpet for me, I was astonished. Their own photographer and at least 30 other staffers kept dribbling in to watch as word got out, asking what the museum was like then,” says Kite.
Praising the receptiveness of the museum staff, Kenric says, “My mother was pleased that there were so many women scientists working there now, as she was one of only two there in 1958, and women weren’t allowed to go on field trips with all the men.”
Kite, who has lived in South Burlington since 1974, has left her mark in the Green Mountain State as well. She ran political campaigns, including McGovern’s 1972 presidential race, served on state boards in the 1970s including the Vocational Education Board and the Judicial Selection Board. It was during that decade, she was also the executive director of the Vermont Women’s Commission. “It was just at the beginning of the feminist movement with the Equal Rights Amendment and equal pay fights,” recalls Kite, adding, “I had a weekly newspaper column on women’s issues, we overhauled the more sexist aspects of the Vermont Statutes, won a fight to get wives’ names listed in telephone directories, compiled Vermont rape statistics for the first time, and got a criminal bill passed in the Legislature.”
Currently, Kite is a volunteer, maximizing both her scientific and creative abilities. Spending time at ECHO, Leahy Center for Lake Champlain, she says, “My favorite thing is explaining something of the geology of the Champlain Basin to visitors.” In addition, Kite is well-known in the theater circuit as a longtime volunteer for Lyric Theatre. She started working on props in 1975 and graduated to running crews with the production of “Brigadoon” in 1984. Known lovingly as a “proptart,” one of the many resourceful and imaginative Lyric volunteers who provide or create all the objects used by actors in a play, she says she became “the expert” on making fake food. This is an accomplishment that was continually complimented when cast members kept trying to eat the faux food backstage. Kite helped build other memorable props that have graced the Flynn stage, including the huge beanstalk for “Into the Woods,” and a giant pop-out cake for “Singing in the Rain.”
The kind of woman who keeps busy and engaged, Kite does not have to look backwards for zest and adventure. But a visit with the Harvard Kronosaurus was overdue and well deserved. As Kite says, “It was exciting to me! It was great fun - two old fossils reunited after 60 years!”
SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley. the Other Paper