Wheaton College is selling rocks in April. For departing geology professor, it's a test of time.
When you think of Wheaton College, here's what probably doesn't come to mind: the geology department's rock and mineral collection.
In the lower level of the Meyer Science Center -- the building most associated with displaying "Perry," the school's enormous mastodon skeleton -- geology professor Jeff Greenberg is the encyclopedic mind curating a surprising and huge assortment of geological specimens.
Greenberg talks about rocks the way musicians talk about Hendrix or Bowie. Which is to say, his heart is in this collection.
He doesn't need to consult records when he pulls gypsum from the shelf of a storage room and tells you its country of origin (Mexico) and the alumnus who donated it (Arthur Smith). Then he describes the crystal's transparency -- it could have been plucked from Superman's Fortress of Solitude -- with as much enthusiasm as a kid starting his own rock collection.
"I tell anybody, what do you know best? What's your hobby? What are the things you do? You get all nerdy about things, and for me, this is it," he says.
Greenberg already has spent months preparing for a sale of thousands of items from the collection on April 6 to free storage space and raise money for student scholarships and fieldwork.
For Greenberg, who officially retired last school year, it's his "swan song" from academia and the department he helped save from the brink of extinction in the mid-1980s.
"Undergraduate geology is pretty rare at small schools, especially Christian schools, and we didn't get much support," he says of his early career at Wheaton. "But it's grown and done very, very well over the past 30 years, so my heart is here."
The sale, only the fourth in the history of the 84-year-old program, is even bigger than the last time the department held one a decade ago, when Greenberg and other organizers were more concerned about unloading inventory than making a profit before a move into the school's newly constructed science building.
That sale drew a crowd of about 1,000, and Greenberg expects to top that turnout when the department offers items at better prices than what most rock shops or internet sites charge. The cheapest will cost $1. The most expensive so far -- Greenberg is still cataloging items -- is a $2,500 pink variety of kunzite from Afghanistan.
The department doesn't publicize the value of its entire collection "simply because there could be theft," he says.
"We're going to be selling more stuff than just about any rock shop has inventory in the country," Greenberg says. "There's maybe two of them that are close to it."
Seeing the beauty of the collection will be as much a draw as the reasonable prices. Gem-quality emeralds will be sold for $25 each.
"Look at all the colors," Greenberg says in one of the storage rooms devoted to the collection. "Just incredible things."
An eclectic bunch of "very serious" collectors, dealers, teachers, students and hobbyists will be eager to get an up-close look at the collection. Members of a rock club in Arkansas told Greenberg they're driving 800 miles to the sale.
Opals from Australia and Mexico, blue copper silicate from Alabama and a ruby-zoisite that Greenberg collected himself from Tanzania are some of the samples amassed from across the globe.
"It would be hard to stump Jeff on just about any rock or mineral identification, having traveled all over the planet and taught the subject in the classroom, lab and field for over 30 years," department chairman Stephen Moshier said in an email. "He led our previous 'rock sales' that had something for everyone and raised money for student scholarships, research funds and purchase of special specimens for our collection."
Considered some of the rarest samples at the sale are artsmithite, a mineral named after Arthur Smith, the late Wheaton college alum and petroleum geologist who discovered it in Coon Creek, Arkansas. In 2012, the department received Smith's 30,000-piece collection, its largest donation ever.
"He worked for one of the oil companies down in the Gulf Coast ... and he's got one of the finest collections of sulfur minerals and salt domes anywhere in the world," Greenberg says. "And we're keeping three-quarters of it, but we have to sell some of it because we just don't have the room."
There's also a higher purpose to the sale for Greenberg, who joined the college faculty in 1986 after nine years as a state geologist in Wisconsin.
At that time, he had two students majoring in geology. There have been as many as 42 geology majors at the school, and now there's about half that, mirroring a national trend.
"We're doing something that we look at as a mission or a ministry by distributing these things more widely to people ... and for the educational aspect of this, particularly with younger people, who these days are being turned off to science in so many ways."
Greenberg also uses the sale -- he doubts it will happen again -- to promote the work of a department that has had students volunteering in Eastern Europe on water sanitation projects and produced notable alums such as Dawn Wright, a 2016 fellow of the Geological Society of America.
"If I don't get it done, it may never get done, because this is the kind of thing you have to have a heart for," he says.