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December 3, 2009
Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Thursday, December 3, 2009

By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer

With a 14 million-year-old baleen whale specimen (Eobalaenoptera) hanging overhead, nearly 30 children waited their turns to sit on Santa's lap and tell him their gift requests.

They were in The Great Hall of the Virginia Museum of Natural History on Tuesday for the museum's holiday open house, which also included a scavenger hunt, puppet skits, children's choirs, Santa reading a story and the lighting of three live Christmas trees outside the museum. In all, nearly 200 people attended the three-hour event, according to museum officials.

Seven-year-old Lucas Wilson of Martinsville said he asked Santa for a drum set.

"He wants to pound on things," said Lucas' mother, Angela Wilson. Lucas' dad is David Wilson.

Michaela Garrett, 11, of Martinsville, and Dustin Beckner, 12, of Collinsville, sat on Santa's opposite knees.

Michaela said she asked for a laptop computer. "I want to send people e-mails," she said.

And Dustin? He asked for a keyboard cell phone.

"I'm tired of my old" cell phone, which he said cannot do as many things as the one he wants for Christmas.

Michaela is the daughter of Jim and Janice Garrett, and Dustin is the son of Kim Beckner. Michaela and Dustin are members of the children's choir of First Baptist Church in Collinsville, which sang children's Christmas songs earlier during the open house. Kim Beckner is the choir director.

"I didn't know what I wanted to get, so I told him (Santa) I'd send him a note," said 5-year-old Rachael Cardwell of Ridgeway.

While many children were eager to talk with Santa, Rachel's sister, Amelia, 1, kept her distance.

"She wanted to look at him. She didn't want to get too close," said Kristin Cardwell, Amelia and Rachel's mother. Their dad is Gene Cardwell.

Skyler Spence, 4, of Martinsville, said he asked Santa for a reindeer "'cause it's almost Christmas."

He is the son of Cori and Rusty Spence of Martinsville.

After Santa finished hearing the children's gift requests, he began reading the book "Dinosaurs' Night Before Christmas" by Anne Muecke. Because Santa's gloves were thick, he needed a little help, and Debbie Lewis, the museum's director of development, sat on his knee and turned the pages.

According to a summary of the book on the dust jacket, every Christmas Eve dinosaur fossils in the museum come to life and "sing, dance, eat gingerbread and be merry. And this year, a young boy who lives across the street gets to join in the magical story." The museum tried to get TV's Al Roker, who read the story on a CD that comes with the book, to appear at the open house but didn't get the request in early enough, Lewis said.

After reading the story, Santa hugged children - sometimes several at a time - before leaving the museum.

Earlier in the afternoon, children and adults alike took part in a scavenger hunt that led them to various exhibits in the museum as they sought answers to seven questions. Try this one: "How many fossil dinosaur bones have been found in Virginia?" None, said Ryan L. Barber, the museum's director of marketing and external affairs.

First United Methodist Church of Martinsville presented a puppet show, with contemporary to traditional songs.

The puppet show was a hit among children for several reasons. For instance, Skyler Spence liked the funny elephants in Noah's Ark, and Michaela Garrett enjoyed the puppets singing "Merry Christmas," they said.

The senior girls and adult choirs from Christ Episcopal Church also sang at the open house, said David Pulliam, organist and choir master.

The free open house culminated with the ceremonial lighting of three live Christmas trees "measured in sizes of 12, 10 and 8 feet, weighing more than 2 tons combined," according to the museum Web site. Debbie Lewis said one of the bald white pine trees will be planted on the museum grounds, and two will be donated to others in the community.

Earlier in the day, dozens of children from Albert Harris Elementary School placed decorations they made on the trees. The decorations, which will attract birds, were made of such things as dried apples and oranges; strung popcorn and dried cereals; peanut butter and birdseed on pine cones; and other natural materials, said fifth-grade teacher Sarah France.

About 100 first-, second-, third- and fifth-grade students from the classes of Andrea Betton, Katrell Ramsey, Emily Clark, Sarah France and Leslie Crowe classes were involved, school officials said.

Jaiylon Blackwell, 11, a fifth-grader at Albert Harris, admired the lighted trees. "I feel good 'cause I put work into it," said Jaiylon, the son of Cheree Blackwell of Martinsville.

Several adults said the open house activities were fun and educational.

Ditto for Jamel Hill, 18, a senior at Martinsville High School, who was one of about 15 students from the MHC After 3 after-school program to attend. He said the group came to see the exhibits, but "if I were a kid myself, I'd be real excited."