Jay Villemarette is the first to say that he was not unlike other teenage boys in high school in the 80s. He thought about cars and wanted to fix them. He even attended Moore Norman Technology Center’s Auto Body course during high school on his quest to work on cars.
He visited MNTC’s campus as a sophomore in high school and decided that since he worked well with his hands he would enroll in the Auto Body course, today called Auto Collision Technology. He said that he learned not only how to repair vehicles, but also how to follow-through with all of the projects he started. While in his MNTC course, he was asked to represent the junior class during skills competition and he earned third place in state. During his senior year he earned first place and the right to compete on the national level. Villemarette earned fifth place at nationals for auto body and enjoyed his time at MNTC, but he said it was the lessons he learned about himself that he’ll keep forever.
“Moore Norman is one of the first places where I felt valued as a person, and I owe much of my self-confidence to my instructor, Jim Opdyke. What he saw in me – at 17 – was something that I didn’t yet. He took me under his wing and spent time helping me learn and grow and that’s a huge confidence-builder for a teen. It gave me the personal drive to do more and be better.
“I think everyone should have the chance to earn a technical education. I’m a firm believer in technical education and I’m the person I am today because of attending Moore Norman,” Villemarette said.
One thing that was different between Villemarette and his high school peers was an osteology hobby that he never could have guessed would change his life. At age seven, Villemarette found a canine skull while on an outing in the woods close to his home. It fascinated him and his father encouraged the young Villemarette to continue his interest in collecting other skulls. By high school, Villemarette was collecting and selling skulls while working as an auto body technician.
It was 1985 and Villemarette married and by 1986 he and his wife, Kim, began cleaning skulls to sell at home. They soon developed a one-page price list that turned his childhood hobby into a business. By 1992 they had a mail-order company that serviced customers from around the globe. It was then they became Skulls Unlimited International, Inc.
“Most people didn’t believe I could make a living selling skulls, and I remember running into friends that I hadn’t seen in a while and they’d ask, ‘So, how is the skull business doing?’ or ‘Are you selling any of those skulls?’
“I’d say I’ve created a market where a market hadn’t existed. I’ve brought skulls and skull collecting into the main-stream market and made skulls and skeletons available to the educational and science communities,” said Villemarette.
Skulls Unlimited began seeing more growth after Villemarette began attending science conferences and started an advertising campaign. Now, he can boast that he’s supplied skeletons and skulls to just about every museum in the country, including huge operations like the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.., the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the Field Museum in Chicago.
Today, 25 years later, Villemarette has seen the opening of his lifelong dream realized in the opening of the Museum of Osteology in south Oklahoma City in October last year. He’s also watched his collection grow to many hundreds of skeletons, including a rare Javan rhinoceros skull; there may only be 50 of this species alive today. The museum also boasts one of only 12 complete 40-foot humpback whale skeletons in North America, which hangs from the ceiling of the building, and weighs almost 2,500 pounds.
The museum also displays a Komodo dragon skeleton which was a presidential gift from Indonesia to George H.W. Bush, an elephant, hippopotamus, gorilla, giraffe and lesser known species such as a kinkajou, saiga and potaroo. At the time we spoke, Villemarette’s crew was busy preparing a Right Whale specimen that they recently returned with from Florida.
Annually, the company processes about 30,000 skulls or skeletons and Villemarette said his group is the largest supplier of osteological specimens in the world. Most of the items are animals that have died naturally and are donated by zoos, individuals and game farms and Villemarette said Skulls Unlimited will only accept ethically collected donations.
Despite his hectic schedule filling global orders for specimens, Villemarette made time to take advantage of a rare opportunity to tell his story and promote his business on The Discovery Channel’s show “Dirty Jobs” a few years ago.
Skulls Unlimited is truly a family-owned operation, with Villemarette’s wife still working with him and their sons also on-site to keep the business solid and growing.
“I never thought when I started the company that my three grown sons would one day be working here. It’s a good feeling,” he said.
Villemarette also acknowledged how MNTC has made a difference in his son’s lives. His son, Josh, took Graphic Design and some networking courses and his son, Jay, Jr., completed the Entrepreneurship course, and is the successful owner of Patio Garden Ponds.
“These classes have done for my sons what it did for me, and I’m so glad they chose to attend Moore Norman. I attribute so much of my work ethic and self-confidence to my time there. MNTC made an impact on my life that changed me forever,” said Villemarette.
To learn more about Skulls Unlimited, Inc. or about visiting the Museum of Osteology visit www.skullsunlimited.com or call 405-794-9300. For information about MNTC’s career courses visit www.mntechnology.com or call 405-364-5763.
by Anna Aguilar, APR