Dennis Joe Stanford: Our Neighbor the Archeologist

May 13, 1943 - April 24, 2019

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You’ve no doubt observed him driving about in a vintage forest green Mustang with its tan canvas top down. Or with wife, Pegi Jodry, strolling to Eastern Market with dogs, Goji and Rosie. Or in earlier days, smoking a cigar on his lawn at Massachusetts & 14th exchanging a bit of chaff with cops, neighbors, and tradesmen. Or getting up in red and white as Santa each year for neighborhood and member children of Historic Congressional Cemetery.

He had the beard for the latter role – full and fading to white, and the build and humor for it, too. When he wore his brimmed stockman’s hat, he looked every bit the native of Rawlins, Wyoming, where he grew up.

On Wednesday morning, April 24, Dennis Joe Stanford, Curator of North American Archaeology and Director of the Paleoindian Program at the Smithsonian, died at Georgetown University Hospital after a two year fight with cancer. It was just days before his 76th birthday. Pegi Jodry lived that period in his ICU hospital room. Throughout the last days, friends, neighbors, nurses, and colleagues met each other in the room and corridor outside.

He once told a friend he couldn’t swim a stroke, that he would sink like a prehistoric stone spearpoint — quite an admission coming from a man who regularly stood on the bow of small research craft pitching on Chesapeake Bay chop to scan eroding island banks for traces of early human tools.

He confessed to another friend that he managed to get through four undergraduate years at the University of Wyoming without having to write a single paper — this from a scientist who later produced 136 publications including four books. His last one, Across Atlantic Ice, (with co-author Bruce Bradley) created interest and fascination with general readers and disputes with archaeologists for its theory of a westward Atlantic route taken by the earliest Americans.

He was among the best known North American archaeologists. Last year, at an annual meeting of the profession, a symposium was created in his honor and quickly packed. Though down to half his weight and disfigured from cancer surgery, he was ebullient in accepting good wishes from colleagues who responded with updates of what they were up to, not without humor.

One described careful underwater sweeps off the Oregon coast aboard a research vessel as something like “riding a 70-foot Zamboni machine.” Another, an archaeologist from Mexico, related how he and his students had to abandon a dig after learning the underlying land was owned by “El Chapo” Guzman. The young scientist movingly ended his talk by turning to the honoree and saying he wanted most “to be like Dr. Stanford.”

Visitors to his office at the Museum of Natural History were taken with his easy acquaintance with security guards, exhibit artists, cafeteria cashiers, administrative staff, elevator operators, and colleagues. He worked there 47 years and was proud of the institution, one of the world’s best and certainly by attendance its most popular.

He believed in removing barriers to scientific knowledge, of writing clearly and well; and as much as possible, not requiring formal consent or charging admission. Looking down sometimes from a balcony onto the Elephant atrium at the Museum, he marveled at the size of crowds wet from a July cloudburst and steaming in the building’s air conditioning.

 

Dennis Joe Stanford is survived by his wife, Margaret Jodry, a research archaeologist; two sisters; a daughter, Brandi, from his first marriage; and two grandchildren.