On a sunny October morning in 2002, ghosts of the Cretaceous first appeared outside the front entrance of the Neville Public Museum. Since that day, the skeletons of a mother Tyrannosaurus Rex and her child—later named “Big Mama” and “Baby Bones”—have welcomed and inspired visitors. These two iconic metal sculptures by Don Debaker have become synonymous with the Neville Public Museum, and are, in many ways, an embodiment of the Neville’s history and identity.
Debaker’s artworks are the result of a lifelong love of art, technical ability, and partnerships with museum experts, private donors, and local companies. Debaker, a boilermaker by trade, fused his love of art, especially sculpture, with his skill as a welder nearly twenty years ago when he began making small shovel-birds and butterflies. One day, inspired by his find of a large industrial-sized chain—perfect for a dino spine!—Debaker began work on his first dinosaur. It wasn’t long before word-of-mouth spread the news of Debaker’s creations.
In 2001, the director of the Neville, Gene Umberger, approached Debaker about crafting a unique sculpture for the museum. It was decided that the recognizable form of tyrannosaur was just the thing to stand guard at the Neville’s front doors . Not long after work had begun on the large T-Rex, the museum eagerly requested a second, smaller dinosaur to accompany it. Debaker spent the following months fabricating pieces and welding the skeletons together in a friend’s shop. Finally, the pair was unveiled and dedicated at 11:00am on October 5th, 2002.
For ten years, the pair of dinosaurs lurked in front of the Neville until one day they disappeared. Under the advisement of the Neville’s then-director and resident paleontologist, Rolf Johnson, the dinosaurs were refurbished and adjusted to reflect a more correct anatomical stance. Working as part of the team housed at Renco Machine, Debaker took part in the project, noting that the incorrect posture of the skeletons was something that had long bothered him as well. When Big Mama and Baby Bones returned to the Neville in December of 2012, they boasted a new coat of paint and better lighting along with their new pose.
Neither the creation of the sculptures nor their later refurbishment could have been possible without the generous financial support and cooperation of local donors and businesses. A former Green Bay resident, Mrs. Margueritte Gardner, originally supplied the funding for the dinosaurs. Mrs. Gardner’s continued support would later help beautify the Neville by providing means to pay for new shrubbery, flowers, and a bench. Later, in an echo of her previous gift, the mural of dinosaurs in the children’s Discovery Room was also made possible through her generosity. Renco Machine, Inc. and Ideal Crane Rental, Inc. provided further support. These local businesses were both essential partners in the removal, readjustment, and return of Big Mama and Baby Bones.
As the Neville prepares for its centennial in 2015, a celebration is in order, and no celebration is complete without the proper attire! Once again, the Neville, Debaker, and Renco Machine, Inc. are partnering to make sure Big Mama and Baby Bones are prepared for the centennial by making them each a customized party hat. Debaker, who always approaches his work with a smile, embraces the idea and is happy to have some help on the project.
Big Mama and Baby Bones have, for good reason, become the symbols of the Neville Public Museum. Like the museum , they are products of cooperation, generosity, talent, and community support. In that way, they are truly an embodiment of museums history and mission . As the Neville has evolved, so have they. The values that these sculptures represent are at the core of the Neville’s identity as an important community partner, a strong advocate for the arts, and a place where generations can come to explore the rich heritage of this region.