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Geology department head owns legacy of rock hammers

When a geologist is in the field, it's just them, a few simple tools and the mountain.



New Mexico State University professor of geological sciences and department head, Nancy McMillan, owns a collection of rock hammers. Each of the eight hammers was owned by a geology legend before her. (NMSU Photo by Robert Yee)

That's it.

To Nancy McMillan, New Mexico State University Department of Geological Sciences academic head, that's life. Throughout her years teaching at the university, she has collected samples, knowledge and even a legacy of rock hammers and geological tools along the way.

There are eight hammers along a short stretch of wall near the door to her office in Breland Hall. Each has its own story and purpose in the field and each one has been held by a geology legend before her.

"It's all sentimental, and it all has to do with legacies," McMillan said of her collection. "One generation shapes the next and it shapes the next."

Nearly all of the hammers in her collection were given to her by someone who used to study or teach geological sciences. Most notably, the largest hammer in the collection weighs about eight pounds, is about three feet in length and is what McMillan describes as "thoroughly brutalized." The wooden handle and steel head were previously wielded in the field by a retired NMSU faculty member, Bill Seager. This large hammer is used to break down large rocks in order to collect and study a microscopic mineral inside it such as zircon or hornblende.

Half of the hammer collection belonged to her former NMSU geology professor, Russell Clemons, who died in 1994. McMillan said he was a mentor and taught her as an undergraduate student in geological sciences when she attended the university. These four smaller hammers in the collection were found when Clemons' wife, Frankie, and McMillan cleaned out his office after his death. Frankie donated the hammers to the department for use on various outings and field trips.

"These two geology professors shaped my geological life and the research I have done," McMillan said of Seager and Clemons.

Another sentimental piece in the collection was the hammer that belonged to her deceased father who was a chemist in Los Alamos, N.M. and went on a number of geological trips. His Social Security number is engraved into the metal just above the handle. Both he and McMillan's mother were "rock hounds." Like many of the others, the hammer continues to travel with McMillan's classes. "It goes on trips (with us). My parents would have wanted it that way. They would have wanted me to share my rock hammers with others," she said.

One hammer that does not go on department trips, though, is one which was owned by Russell Jentgen, a 1970 graduate from the geological sciences department. It instead is a hammer which is passed among department heads as they take office. After graduating from NMSU, Jentgen continued his career in geology for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management until he died in 2002. That fall, Jentgen's wife and daughter funded an endowed scholarship for a student in the department who has had to work to put themselves through college in an effort to give that student more time to focus on studies in geology.

Hammers such as Jentgen's will continue to be passed on to each new department head as a way to commemorate his hard work and dedication to the field of study. Sometime after the renovation of Gardiner Hall, McMillan hopes to create a display case of rock hammers honoring faculty members who have retired or would like to retire their hammers.

McMillan also has her own four-pound hammer to round out her collection. Although all the hammers hold a special place in her heart, she said hers is "the best hammer in the world." Many of these hammers have been on trips far from Las Cruces including Chile, Mexico and Colombia, to name a few.

The next time these hammers will be taken out of the office to dig up, pry apart and break rocks will be during homecoming weekend in November for the annual field trip scheduled for NMSU students and alumni who study or have studied geological sciences.