Marian Maas reflects on her grandfather, Elmer S. Riggs

Marian Maas was a beloved wife, mother and grandmother and a kindergarten teacher who loved history. In her retirement, she collected and restored antique dolls. She passed away in late May of this year.

Marian was also the granddaughter of Elmer S. Riggs, a vertebrate paleontologist at Chicago’s Field Museum from 1898 through 1942. In the summer of 2000, she met with historian of science Paul D. Brinkman at the museum to discuss her late grandfather.

Following an exhaustive tour of the paleontology collections and exhibits, Paul and Marian retired to the former’s office to discuss Elmer’s family life and personality. As Paul explains at the beginning of the interview, there is a great deal of information in the written record about Elmer’s work, but comparatively little about his personal life. Fortunately, Marian was eager to talk. She spoke about her grandfather and his family for more than an hour. She was very fond of him, remembering him as the person who got her interested in science. According to Marian, Elmer was the glue that held the family together:

“He was family oriented, and we spent lots of Christmases there [with Elmer in Chicago] or they came to us for Christmas. So, we had a very strong family feeling that he kept together even with three different wives, you know. [Elmer widowed three times.] They fit in, and I never knew anything about their families; it just seemed like once they married him they were a Riggs along with everybody else. They were in our family, not theirs anymore. That’s kind of the way that seems.”

Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle
Riggs family portrait ca. 1933 with Elmer and Fannie in the middle

In her childhood, when Elmer still worked for the Field Museum, he would take Marian and her sisters on tours of the exhibits. She remembered how he “always welcomed us here [at the Field Museum] also, you know, and … every time we came to Chicago we always had to come here to see some of our old friends, you know, some of the old exhibits.” For her eighth birthday, Elmer gave Marian a prepared sheep’s skull with all of the individual bones festooned with neat pen-and-ink labels. Recollecting her gift in later years, she thought it was “rare for a grandfather to send an eight-year-old girl a sheep skull for her birthday, but it was perfect as far as I was concerned.” Marian went on to collect skeletons herself, remarking that even though her family did not have enough money to purchase mounted sets, she and her sister (with the assistance of their father) would create their own from carcasses found near their home.

In listening to the interview, one gets the feeling that Marian truly believed Elmer made an effort to visit the family as often as he could. He appears in many of the photos she brought to the interview, especially from the time she lived in Michigan. When Paul asked her about how her family felt about Elmer, Marian had quite a bit to say:

“Grandfather was always so imposing, and he always seemed serious and deliberate, and so we respected him, and not only did he have this fantastic job that we thought was so neat … but he was just a very imposing person otherwise, and … we did respect him and obey him without question even though sometimes it’s hard to keep quiet in the apartment or something. I remember asking him once why he was bald, and he said oh, cause his hat wore his hair away. Well, I couldn’t figure that out because where the hat was, the hair was, but he didn’t get upset by my question. He answered it, and … he did talk to us, and … didn’t talk down to us, and he was not only willing to bring us to his work and so on; like I say, bounce us on his knee, and sang to us.”

Marian even shared a touching family letter from 1913 written by Elmer to his young sons, who had been living with an uncle since the tragic death of their mother in 1906. She picked it out from a stack of papers she had copied for Paul. She hoped that his personal papers – including poetry and other miscellaneous writing – would paint a fuller picture of Elmer’s humanity. The letter explains that he would soon be marrying Fannie Smith, that she would be a new mother to the boys, and that they could move back home with him and be a family again.

“There is one [letter] in there that’s extra sweet. It’s to his two little boys in 1913, and it’s telling them that he’s got a new apartment for them to come live with him because they’ve been living with aunts and uncles … since their mother died, and … he talks about he’s going to fix up a room just for them, and maybe even Santa Claus will come visit, and best of all, you’re gonna have a new mother, and she’s gonna love you and take care of you, and so on. So, I hadn’t known that existed until I got it ‘til recently, and that was a real sweet letter, you know.”

Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914
Elmer Riggs, Fannie Smith, Robert and Hal at the Smith Farm ca. 1914

Marian went on to talk about how she vacationed with her cousins often, and believed her father Calvin Harold “Hal” and his brother Robert were very close. They even sailed together in their retirement:

“And then later when he built catamarans and a trimaran, and then he raced catamarans, and he got Rob interested in it too. So they sailed together a lot after daddy retired. So they were quite close, and always got along quite well, and the family spent a lot of vacations together. So I knew—was very close to most of my cousins for that reason. So they were close.”

-Transcriptions, writing, and technical support supplied in part by Michelle Sclafani.

13 thoughts on “Marian Maas reflects on her grandfather, Elmer S. Riggs”

  1. “Elmer was the glue that held the family together.” Very clever. It’s also nice to get an account of what Riggs was like in his personal life.

  2. That letter is heartbreaking, but I’m glad it worked out for his sons in the end. It seems like Elmer tried very hard to make sure his sons had each other even when he was not around. And I’m glad Marian was close with her cousins as well. Hopefully it continues through the generations!

  3. I would like to acknowledge the expert help of Matt Jones and Eric Knisley of the N. C. Museum of Natural Sciences as well as staff at the N. C. State Archives for converting these old audio tapes to digital files for use on the blog.

    1. Robert Mosher Riggs was born 20 May 1904. Calvin Harold “Hal” Riggs was born 14 August 1905. They were both living with Elmer’s older brother (and Robert’s namesake) Robert Anderson Riggs in (I believe) Puyallup, Washington. Thanks for reading, LB.

  4. Compliments on the Marian Maas interview. That was really interesting. I feel that the such glimpses into the personality of scientists are crucial for assessing their work and (obviously) the way in which they interact with colleagues. This is a good example. Didn’t know about the three wives that died on him, though – that must’ve been really rough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s