When paleontologist Paul Olsen (pictured left, in 1970 at 17 years old) first started looking for dinosaurs in 1967, he never dreamed that he'd end up the subject of White House memos between President Richard Nixon and his senior advisers.
Or that one of the dinosaur footprints he discovered would find its way into a presidential collection.
But that's exactly what happened when Olsen and his friend Tony Lessa (right) successfully lobbied for the creation of a park in 1970 near Livingston, New Jersey (map).
The future park, located in a quarry owned by Walter Kidde Precision Instruments, was a budding paleontologist's dream.
The area was covered in dinosaur footprints, such as ones made by Eubrontes gigantis (pictured), and some of them were more than 200 million years old.
"The footprints are very well preserved in that particular spot," said Olsen, now at Columbia University in New York. And the arrangement of some of them—many small footprints associated with one larger set—indicated behaviors that included parental care, he said.
It took Olsen and Lessa two and a half years to get the area designated as a park, but once they did, an Olsen family friend started writing letters to the White House to see if the boys could meet the President.
"[Presidential speechwriter] William Safire said he didn't want President Nixon to be associated with the concept of a dinosaur," said Olsen. The White House staff discussed this while dealing with the Vietnam War, going so far as to write memos on the situation, he said.
Olsen and Lessa never got their meeting with the President. But Nixon ended up sending the teenagers presidential commendations.
Olsen sent the President a cast of the E. gigantis footprint as a thank you. The cast now resides at the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum in Yorba Linda, California.
The actual footprint fossils, stored in a shed at the park, have walked off. "No one knows what happened to them," Olsen said.