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Older than dirt

James JacksonPeter Russell, a longtime member of the Kitchener-Waterloo Gem and Mineral Club, holds a piece of rock quartz crystal, used to make watches and computer chips. This 16 kilogram (35 pound) piece of quartz was found in Arkansas and scientists estimate it was formed around 280 million years ago. The club will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. James Jackson photo.
Chronicle Staff
Published April 15, 2015

Fifty years is just the blink of an eye in geologic time, but for the local gem and mineral club, it’s a lifetime.

The Kitchener-Waterloo Gem and Mineral Club celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and later this month the club will kick off those festivities with a range of activities for the entire family.

“It’s a blink. It’s nothing,” said Peter Russell, a longtime member of the club and former curator of the Earth Sciences Museum at the University of Waterloo.

“It’s funny how 50 years feels.”

Russell, 71, joined the group after he arrived in Canada from England in June, 1967, just two years after it was formed at what was then called Waterloo Lutheran University (now Wilfrid Laurier University).

Russell’s fascination with the Earth and its nearly five billion years of history started at an early age.

Born and raised in Leeds, Russell spent his childhood collecting fossils along the English shoreline and taking the bus to explore local lead mines.

He was trained as a geological lab technician at what is now the Technological University of Leeds and has travelled around the world, from volcanoes in Italy to the mountains of Norway.

“My parents were interested in natural history and they wanted me to take butterflies and jab them with a pin and I never was very good at that, but I got keen on fossils and minerals,” Russell said.

He was the curator of the Earth Sciences Museum for more than 40 years before he retired three years ago.

His successor, Corina McDonald, had an upbringing similar to Russell’s and was raised in Wawa, a Northern Ontario mining town.

She went on to study geology and hydrochemistry at UW.

“Growing up in a community that’s based on mining, and being surrounded by nature, I had a natural interest in Earth processes and how rocks formed,” she said.

One of their goals during this 50th anniversary celebration is to spread the word about their activities in the local community and help the next generation of would-be fossil hunters or mineral collectors get their start.

On April 26, Russell will give a free walking tour of uptown Waterloo to highlight items of geological interest, including the stone and bricks used to construct local buildings.

A second walking tour will be held in downtown Kitchener later that afternoon, led by McDonald.

“The yellow local bricks are made from the local glacial till that has lots of lime in it, so it turns it that yellow colour,” said Russell. “They weren’t very strong bricks but they look alright.”

The celebration continues at Kitchener City Hall on April 27, from noon to 8 p.m., with activities for children and free gem identification and giveaways for kids.

A local expert will help the public identify old fossils or minerals they may have tucked away in a closet at home.

“There’s always a story behind every rock or mineral, and depending on where they found it we can help fill in that story,” said McDonald.

Anniversary events continue for the rest of the week and wrap up May 3 with a talk by renowned mineral photographer Michael Bainbridge about his work. It will be at the Waterloo Community Arts Centre, 25 Regina St. S., in Waterloo.

For a full list of events and times and to register, visit

While some might consider old rocks or dusty bones to be dull, McDonald said the study of minerals and the structure of the Earth has many practical uses today.

From oil and gas exploration to discovering exciting new ways to use ancient minerals in our modern technology, the field is as exciting and important today as it has ever been, McDonald said.

“Canada is a resource-based country still, (and) even in your iPad or iPhone there’s silver behind that touchscreen that helps the computer know where your finger is,” she said.

“We need minerals for almost everything, especially in today’s world.”