The husband-and-wife founders of a financial planning firm said Monday that they are donating $25 million to Rowan University, their alma mater, to create a museum, visitor center, and other amenities at a former quarry that is a rich source of fossils from the dinosaur era.
The gift from Jean and Ric Edelman is the second largest in the New Jersey school's history, after the $100 million gift in 1992 from Henry and Betty Rowan that led the school to change its name from Glassboro State College.
The university's 65-acre Fossil Park, in Mantua Township, is a popular site for visiting school groups, who are allowed to dig up fossils under the supervision of Rowan scientists.
The gift will enhance that experience with the museum, laboratory spaces, a nature trail, and a paleontology-theme playground, Ric Edelman said.
"The best way to encourage students to enter science and engineering is to get them excited about it," he said. "You can dig into the dirt yourself and find your own dinosaurs."
Most of the fossils in the quarry are from marine creatures, as that part of New Jersey was underwater back then, but there are the occasional remains of dinosaurs who died and floated out to sea.
A fearsome menagerie of additional species is represented in the muddy pit, including sharks, crocodiles, and mosasaurs, voracious beasts who played a key role in the most recent Jurassic Park movie.
Each Friday in the fall and spring, a few hundred schoolchildren come to dig for fossils and attend workshops on how fossils are formed, said park director Ken Lacovara, dean of Rowan's school of the earth and environment.
Currently there are 200 schools on a waiting list for that experience, he said. And in September, when Rowan held a public dig day, 2,000 spots filled up in 23 minutes, he said.
"It's like getting Rolling Stones tickets to go to this place," Lacovara said.
Rowan president Ali A. Houshmand announced a year ago that the university was buying the quarry from the Inversand Co., which mined it for a greenish sediment called glauconite, used in water-treatment plants. Some refer to the sandy, clay-like material as marl, which is found elsewhere in South Jersey and lent its name to Marlton.
The $1.95 million sale of the land, located four miles from the university's main campus in Glassboro, became final in January.
The Edelmans were interested in the site even before Houshmand's announcement, after Jean Edelman heard a presentation that Lacovara made to the university's board of trustees, of which she is a member.
"That was a little spark," she said.
The couple then invited Lacovara to the Fairfax, Va., headquarters of their firm, Edelman Financial Services, to speak about the site in greater detail, the scientist said.
The couple, who founded the firm in 1987, have made other science-themed gifts to Rowan. In 2002, they gave $1 million to support the university's planetarium, which now bears their name. In 2006, they established a program to bring elementary schoolchildren to the facility free, and in 2010 they donated $240,000 toward a full-dome digital projection system. Each year, more than 6,000 students in kindergarten through grade 12 visit the planetarium, Rowan officials said.
The Edelman firm has 170 advisers managing $16 billion in assets, according to a fact sheet from Rowan.
Ric Edelman, who grew up in Cherry Hill, earned his bachelor's degree in communications from the school in 1980. His wife, who grew up in West Windsor, N.J., graduated in 1981, majoring in consumer economics and marketing with a minor in nutrition.
With the announcement of the $25 million gift, Lacovara said, Rowan will engage planners and architects to work at the site. He said he hoped facilities would be ready for use in three to four years.
Lacovara said it would operate like a museum, with visitors able to buy individual tickets or memberships. The nature trail and playground would be free.
Ric Edelman said he and his wife did not start out with a goal of donating $25 million for some unspecified purpose. They arrived at that figure after learning what it would take to build the fossil park facilities, he said.
"Our vision is for this to be a world-class destination on a par with the Franklin Institute and the Smithsonian," Edelman said.
Among the layers of sediment exposed in the old quarry is one from a particularly interesting period in time: 65 million years ago, when a meteor struck the planet and, many say, triggered a mass dinosaur extinction.
That layer of sediment is restricted to professional scientists, while visiting schoolchildren are allowed to dig in a slightly more recent fossil layer, Lacovara said.
They typically find fossils of sponges, clams, snails, and shark teeth. Crocodile bones and pieces of turtle shell are somewhat less common. The young adventurers usually are allowed to keep what they find, except on the rare occasion when it is from a species that has not previously turned up at the site.
In such cases, the finders should not be disappointed, he said. Quite the contrary. In just a few years, Lacovara said, those fossils will end up in a museum.
One such visitor was Cole Bruner, 15, who lives a few minutes from the site in Mantua Township. A sophomore at Bishop Eustace Preparatory School, he estimated that he had been to the quarry eight or nine times.
Four years ago he found an unusual piece of a turtle's backbone, which he turned over to Lacovara and his team when they expressed interest.
"It's just interesting to have a part of history so close to where I live," said Bruner, son of township economic development coordinator Michelle Bruner. "Especially 65 million years ago."