Dead men do tell tales

While presenting to fifth graders at Bass-Hoover Elementary School on Friday, anthropologist Dr. William Bass describes a signature fracture made by a tire iron. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

STEPHENS CITY – Renowned and “retired” forensic anthropologist Dr. William “Bill” Bass has visited plenty of schools to speak on a number of subjects, but his visit to Bass-Hoover Elementary School on Friday was special.

Bass-Hoover Elementary is named in part after his father, Charles Bass, who served for many years as chairman of the Frederick County School Board. Dennis Hoover was the school’s first principal when it opened for the 1975-1976 school year.

Bill Bass said he lived in Stephens City from 1939 to 1946 before studying at the University of Virginia, later serving in the Korean War and continuing his study of anthropology.

While teaching at University of Tennessee, Bass created the Anthropological Research Facility, or the famous “Body Farm.” The facility is the subject of many books – “Without Mercy,” the tenth novel in his and Jon Jefferson’s “Body Farm” series, is set to release in October.

Now part of a New York Times bestselling author team and professor emeritus of the university’s Forensic Anthropology Center, Bass is in high demand to speak at schools, organizations and other events. Bass-Hoover principal Joseph Strong said Bass would also be speaking at a special 40th anniversary event Friday evening alongside some other guests.

Anthropologist Dr. William Bass talks about sculls with fifth graders at Bass-Hoover Elementary School on Friday. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

Students in Scarlett Kibler’s double math class bore their CSI (Challenge Seeking Investigators) badges to Bass’ session on forensic anthropology. This is her first year teaching fifth grade language arts and math at Bass-Hoover.

She said she knew of Bass’ legacy while working for “America’s Most Wanted” in the past, but hadn’t made the connection between him and the school until later. Getting in touch with Bass and his assistants, the opportunity for a presentation was perfect on the school’s 40th anniversary year.

“We’re really pushing with STEM curriculum and the cross-curricular … that’s where our generation is going,” she said. “Whatever we can do to get them interested in math and science careers, we try to do that.”

Before Bass’ presentation, a news video introduced students to his working legacy, down to the massive Bass Donated Skeleton Collection under the University of Tennessee’s football stadium.

Jaws dropped and eyes widened as Bass told his young audience how the owners of five skulls died, counting the bullet holes in one subject and describing the golf putter bludgeon wound on the next. There was a chorus of gasps as Bass rattled around a chemically preserved brain in the final skull.

Anthropologist Dr. William Bass points out where a golf putter bludgeoned a victim's skull to fifth graders at Bass Hoover Elementary School during a presentation on Friday. Rachel Mahoney/Daily

“You all can go tell your friends, ‘You know, I saw a skull that you could shake and make its brain rattle,'” he said after answering some questions. “Not many people have seen that.”

Throughout his presentation, Bass showed the importance of math in his line of work. Other mini-lessons in geography, anatomy, history and even dental hygiene came through when he told each skull’s backstory.

Among their fascination with some of the more gruesome tales, students learned about types of soils in the Midwest, the Native American cradleboard and where their mastoid process is (it’s a section of the skull underneath the ear).

After the session, the fifth graders gathered around Bass for a picture before walking away with a signed photo, abuzz with excitement. Student Hannah Mallow said she liked seeing the partly preserved skull the most, even though some of the other kids were grossed out.

“It’s just cool because it had the hair still, and the story … and it had the brain inside it,” she said. “I think that’s really awesome.”

Since he said he normally speaks to older students, Bass said he had to dial down his presentation a bit and focus on his set of skulls.

“Most of the slides I show are fairly gruesome,” he said. “I thought, ‘Fifth graders love skulls,’ and they did, I think they liked that.”

Bass also noted the changes and developments in the Northern Shenandoah Valley since leaving the area, recalling when his father would hunt on the land where Bass-Hoover is now.

He said he had last visited for the school’s 25th anniversary.

“It’s nice to come back,” he said. “I am impressed with the whole valley.”

Contact staff writer Rachel Mahoney at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rmahoney@nvdaily.com