Kay Blair once spent a year meticulously preparing a fossil of a 6-foot long crocodile skull.
Blair, the oldest and one of the longest-tenured volunteers in the paleontology laboratory at the Science Museum of Minnesota, had “the detailed-oriented mindset, as well as the infinite patience, to sit there and scrape away at a bone for hours on end,” said Alex Hastings, the museum’s Phillip W. Fitzpatrick Chair of Paleontology.
“It really takes a specific kind of person … because it’s very, very detailed work,” Hastings said. “Kay was one of our best volunteers.”
Blair died Wednesday night at Saint Therese at St. Odilia Hospice in Shoreview of complications related to several strokes she suffered in early March. She was 96.
Blair started volunteering at the Science Museum in the early 1980s. A former professor of mathematics at Hamline University, Blair was initially invited to work on a trial basis in the paleontology lab by former Philip W. Fitzpatrick Chair of Paleontology Bruce Erickson.
A family friend, Ned Bray, volunteered at the museum and introduced her to Erickson. “Bruce said he would try her out for a while,” said her son, Carl Blair. “It was very much an audition.”
Until COVID-19 shuttered the lab a year ago, Kay Blair would volunteer every Tuesday and Thursday.
It takes someone incredibly detail-oriented and patient to uncover paleontological specimens for study or exhibit, said Mark Ryan, who volunteered with Blair.
“Kay would sometimes show me a miniscule piece of fossil that had broken off, and she would make sure it got glued back,” he said. “She was very exacting and meticulous in her fossil preparation.”
Blair was featured in the 2021 edition of “The Fossil Prep Calendar,” a fundraiser for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists. “She was Ms. October,” Ryan said.
Kay Winger was born in Northfield and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from St. Olaf College in 1945. Three years later, she got her master’s degree in physics from the University of Minnesota.
While at the U of M, she met an experimental nuclear physicist named Morris Blair, who had worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory and witnessed the first atomic bomb test. The couple married in 1948 and had two sons, Carl and John. Morris Blair died in 1996.
Kay Blair worked with her husband at Argonne National Laboratories outside Chicago. He later designed the U of M’s John H. Williams Laboratory for Nuclear Physics.
Kay Blair taught mathematics at Macalester College in St. Paul as she completed her Ph.D. in mathematics at the University of Minnesota, which she received in 1966. She also taught at the U and at the Minnesota School Mathematics and Science, where she was “part of the team that came with more contemporary ways to teach mathematics to children,” Carl Blair said.
Blair said his mother found math interesting for the same reasons she found chemistry and physics interesting, which was “how the variables interact and the interactions and the patterns you can see when you do higher-level mathematics,” he said. ” … It allows you to explore and look at the world around you and see it in a different fashion and be aware of how the different parts interact with each other.”
Blair lived in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood. She is survived by her two sons and four grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held this summer at St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, where she was a longtime member. O’Halloran and Murphy Funeral Home in St. Paul is handling the arrangements.