2012 Nelson Award

Mark Shurilla has been named the 2012 recipient of the Katherine G. Nelson Award, presented by the Weis Earth Science Museum, Menasha, Wisconsin.  The award honors those who have made outstanding contributions to earth science in Wisconsin or Wisconsinites who have made outstanding contributions to earth science in general.*

A native of Milwaukee, Mark Shurilla has had two primary loves in his life:  rocks and rock.  A talented musician, Mark was the founder of a diversity of bands, was nominated for a Grammy, had a song he wrote about Milwaukee Brave baseball player Warren Spahn inducted into the National Baseball Music Series Showcase, and established a number of music-oriented publications, including The Shepherd Express, Milwaukee’s free alternative newspaper.  Perhaps he is most famous for producing, promoting and performing in the Buddy Holly Tribute Showcase, which has toured the Midwest for more than 20 years.

Mark’s love of old things goes well beyond classic rock, however, as he has a passion for the fossils found in ancient rocks.  In fact, Mark learned paleontology from the award’s namesake, Katherine Nelson, when he was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the 1970s.  Over the years, Mark also has been an avid member of amateur rock clubs, such as the Wisconsin Geological Society in Milwaukee, which Katherine helped found. 

Mark is responsible for Wisconsin having an official state fossil, and an appropriate one at that.  Back in the early 1980s, he began promoting the trilobite Calymene celebra (now called Gravicalymene celebra), with the same tireless enthusiasm with which he promoted one of his bands or shows.  Rather than a generic fossil, Mark chose a particular trilobite from the Silurian rocks of Milwaukee, which was common, usually found complete, and was famous among fossil collectors.  His perseverance finally paid off, and this trilobite was designated state fossil in 1986. Mark Shurilla

Fossils also figured into Mark’s entrepreneurial spirit.  He established the company Express Fossils to deal in fossil specimens, especially amber.  Although he loves all fossils, amber (the petrified resin of ancient trees that may contain the remains of insects and other organisms) has become his primary prehistoric passion.  He travelled to exotic locales around the world in order to collect and acquire amber, but has focused mostly on the Dominican Republic.  Mark has become a true amber expert, whose knowledge is sought after by major auction houses, museums, and collectors.  His knowledge about the fossil marketplace also makes him one a handful of expert fossil appraisers in the U. S.  He has even combined his love of fossils and music when, with Colorado friend Chris Weege, he established Dinopalooza, an outdoor music festival held amongst the dinosaur bone beds. 

Paleontology has also benefitted from Mark’s career as a professional writer.  He has been the editor of the MAPS Digest, the publication of the Mid-America Paleontology Society, since 2005, and has written a number of papers for that journal as well.  For the last few years, he has been working on a book about the amber of the Dominican Republic, which was commissioned by that country.  As Mark has gotten to know the local people who earn their living by collecting amber fossils, has visited the collecting sites many times, and has seen most of the spectacular fossils found there in recent years, the book promises to be exciting and engaging.

From little kids to major museums, Mark has always been generous to everyone with his knowledge and specimens.  Even with his incredibly full schedule in the music promotion and performance business, Mark always found time to help identify fossils in a collection, to bring together donors and museums, to conduct appraisals, and to just share his excitement about fossils.  For example, he helped the Weis Earth Science Museum gather specimens for exhibits when it opened ten years ago, from his own collection and by calling in favors from fellow fossil enthusiasts. 

Mark clearly embodies both objectives of the Nelson Award, having made outstanding contributions to earth science in Wisconsin and as a Wisconsinite who has made outstanding contributions to the earth sciences in general.  A little of Katherine Nelson’s inspiration must have rubbed off on him back in his student days.

*Sadly, this award was presented posthumously, as Mark passed away on May 14, 2012, at age 65, while recuperating from heart surgery.

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