No Limits
Delaware County’s real-life Indiana Jones, Don Lessem, has made it his mission to educate the world—and entertain it, too—about Genghis Khan, dinosaurs and whatever captures his imagination next
by Bill Donahue

Don Lessem speaks of dinosaurs as lovingly as an 8-year-old boy, which is understandable because they have been good to him. But man and prehistoric beast also have much in common; with the world of science having determined that birds are, in fact, the ancestors of the earth-shaking “thunder lizards” that once roamed the planet, Lessem and his dinosaurs share the gift of evolution.

Lessem began his career in journalism, predominantly as a science reporter for the Boston Globe, but has since recast himself as something of a real-life Indiana Jones. He now spends his time traveling the world to uncover fossils and unique historical artifacts and then crafting them into traveling exhibits worthy of red-carpeted staging within the world’s most respected museums.

Of course, the man known in many circles as “Dino Don” has become one of the world’s foremost authorities on T. rexes, velociraptors and other prehistoric reptiles.  He is responsible for the excavation and reconstruction of some of the world’s largest dinosaur skeletons. In addition, he has authored dozens of widely published dinosaur books and, quite impressively, has served as an advisor to Steven Spielberg on the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park,” as well as for films and attractions from Disney and Universal Studios. He even has a dinosaur named after him: an Argentine planteater named Lessemsaurus, a fitting homage considering his vegetarian lifestyle.

Lessem’s transformation began in the late 1980s, when he won a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“At about the same time I was sent by the newspaper to do a story about dinosaurs, and I hadn’t thought about dinosaurs since I was 8,” he says from his 18th century home on a sprawling swath of Delaware County farmland. “I found that the people who do the work [of digging up fossils] are very cool. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to find lost pieces, and I loved that as much as the animals.”

Dinosaurs remain a consuming passion for Lessem, as evidenced by the many fossils, collectibles and other memorabilia on display at his home—Troodon Manor, he calls it, named after his favorite dinosaur—as well as by an exhibit that opened in October at the nearby Granite Run Mall: Dino Don’s Dinosaurium. Described as “Barnum & Bailey meets dinosaurs,” the space is whimsical and entertaining, featuring many of the dinosaurs—or at least parts of them—seen in the “Jurassic Park” films. For every ticket sold Lessem contributes $1 to local schools. At press time the exhibit had raised more than $25,000.

“It’s not as dry as a museum,” he says. “There’s a shooting gallery where kids can fire darts at the dinosaurs; they can dig for fossils they can take home; and there are robots that move around. … We slip the science in when they’re not looking.”

Lessem continues to find new things to busy his mind and challenge his growing network of contemporaries around the world. His Genghis Khan exhibit, for example, which he assembled in cooperation with the government of Mongolia and focuses on Khan’s legacy as a great leader and conqueror, is now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum and will later travel to museums in other cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Next on the docket is a Great Wall of China exhibit that he expects to open in Singapore and, eventually, Philadelphia.

“We’ll have people in the exhibit come in and build a portion of the wall every day,” he says. “I wanted to recreate the whole experience, from the people who worked to build the wall to those who lived around it. I wanted to show the cultural achievements and the defense of the wall; I want it so you can fire arrows off the wall, electronically. It’s going to be a big exhibit so you can at least give the flavor of [the wall’s] 7,000 miles.”

Lessem had spent most of his life in Boston before meeting a woman from Media while the two were working as advisors for Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla. (“She was the only other person there interested in petting the rhinoceros,” he says.) He never expected life to lead him down the path it did, but considering how his restless mind works, he’s not surprised.

“I was never afraid of failing,” he says. “I’m doing a lot of stuff I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m willing to try. To me the joy is continually trying new stuff. If you have nerve and pushiness and some creativity, there are not a lot of limits. … If I had done the same thing over and over, I would be rich by now, but it’s much more interesting to create something new.”