The Centaur of Volos

An oddity turns 20, plus an appreciation of the late Dale Watermulder

"The Centaur Excavations at Volos" has been perplexing visitors to the main lobby at the University of Tennessee's Hodges Library for 20 years this month.

I remember the first time I encountered it, right about 20 years ago I think. It was late at night, I was alone, I was tired, and I found, behind glass, this skeleton of a centaur.

My first thought, to be honest, was, This changes everything. Why did I not hear about this on NPR?

There was some explanatory text, but it did not help silence my existential inward scream. Because I was alone, I did not read "Hokes Archives" out loud.

I asked the nearest library staffer I could find, a young woman who was at the lobby desk. She didn't seem dumb. But she didn't seem to think an old centaur skeleton was any big deal. Yes, it's real, she said, with maybe just a little edge in her voice that I took as a comment about my skepticism, my assumption that UT would ever display something that wasn't real.

What struck me most was that she wasn't all that interested. I figured she was probably majoring in one of the more practical fields. Sure, there were centaurs, but they were kind of gross, and centaurs were dead, anyway, and didn't have much to say to our hip-hop Go-Vols high-tech lifestyle today.

I've run across that way of thinking in other quarters. Sometimes, I'm afraid, the study of history makes the past less fantastic than people who aren't that interested assume it is. It's an irony. In the minds of people who aren't much interested in history, the past is a world of wonders.

There's an iron plaque on our Gay Street building designating it as the birthplace of the University of Tennessee. The Burwell, a 10-story building that was one of Knoxville's first steel-frame "skyscrapers," was completed in 1908. The college that once stood on the plot of ground beneath it had moved away 80 years earlier. That first college building, a three-story frame house, was torn down before the Civil War.

But more than once, people have seen that plaque and assumed that UT was founded in 1794 in a 10-story building. Of course, it doesn't much matter to them that, in 1794, this college on the frontier would have been located in the tallest building in America. That would shake any architect's whole worldview, but not theirs.

Some swear the Sunsphere once rotated, or that there are tunnels that go all the way underneath the river. What surprises me about these folks is not that they believe these things, but that their belief doesn't render them completely enthralled with history, and unable to sleep until they find out more. Most often, they just say these things, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, shrug, and turn on the television.

For the record, "The Centaur Excavations at Volos" is an especially elaborate and understated illusion, using specially treated bones, assembled creatively. The exhibit was first put together by Dr. William Willers, a Professor of Microbiology at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. Professor Beauvais Lyons, printmaking teacher and academia's leading prankster, led an effort to mount it permanently at UT. He says it's an exercise in demonstrating that you can't trust everything you see, an important lesson for undergraduates to learn.

But knowing Beauvais, that earnestness of purpose may be a bit of a hoax, too. I suspect the driving motive may have been the simpler fact that hoaxes are just a lot of fun.

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We'll miss our friend Dale Watermulder, who died earlier this month at age 74. He was the Knox County librarian best known as the captain of the record and movie department on the second floor of Lawson McGhee, the library's main branch on Church Street. He worked up there for 22 years, until his retirement in 2004. He actually started the library's impressive video collection, with the help of the Friends of the Library, as well as its CD and audiobook collections. Though he retired almost a decade ago, much of what you see in the collection today are movies and albums Dale picked, himself, and we're lucky that he was a man of comprehensive and liberal interests.

Dale helped me on several stories over the years, both those having to do with interesting old films—Dale made a mysterious cameo in my story about Knoxville's only film noir, A Woman in Hiding, the 1950 movie I probably never would have heard of unless he told me about it—and those having to do with the complicated workings of the library system.

He was also a help to me personally, for the decade or two that I never went home on a Friday without a movie for the family. My daughter can thank Dale for the fact that Meet Me In St. Louis is one of her all-time favorite films. She was just 5 when Dale told me he was sure she would like it. She's watched it a few hundred times since. For me, he was always thinking of another noir mystery I'd never heard of. There's no Internet substitute for personal service.

Originally from Michigan, Dale was a record-store clerk in Ann Arbor before he moved here in 1977, first working for the library's Fountain City branch.

Dale was also a longtime double-bassist for the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, a recognizable figure over on the right, the tall guy with white hair. During his well-deserved retirement, during which he struggles with complications from diabetes, he had a hard time staying away from his fascinating old office. In recent years, I ran into him frequently as a fellow patron, and he nearly always had some interesting insight. He was a gentle soul with a healthy perspective on the world and all its strangeness.