Reborn At 40, She Uncovered New Life In A 'Dream' — Looking At Skulls

Apr 29, 2016
Originally published on April 29, 2016 12:36 pm

Sharon Long found her calling later in life. Back in the 1980s, she was a single mom trying to support her two kids, holding down several jobs at once — none of which she liked much.

"I worked at the Dairy Queen, and I cleaned a dentist's office, and I was a secretary," Long recalls, on a recent visit with StoryCorps. "I hated every morning I got up."

But, as she tells her colleague Steve Sutter, everything changed for her at age 40. When she she took her daughter to register for college, a financial aid officer persuaded Long to enroll herself.

And that's when she stumbled on the subject she was meant to pursue.

"I had to take an anthropology class, but I didn't even know what it meant," Long says. "So I went home and I looked up anthropology, and I thought, 'Study of mankind — oh, that sounds interesting.' So I took physical anthropology and — bang -- I decided it's what I want to be when I grow up."

Ultimately, she went on to become a forensic artist, someone who reconstructs human faces from skulls for museums and law enforcement agencies. She has worked with skulls more than 9,000 years old and skulls linked to modern-day homicides. She has made busts for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, and her work has been featured on both the History Channel and America's Most Wanted.

In the course of her career, she wagers she has worked with something like 86 skulls.

"I get totally psyched into what I'm doing, just like people must do when they're writing music or painting a painting. You forget to eat, you forget to get up, you forget to drink water you forget everything. Everything just sort of goes into suspension," she says. "And 12 or 15 hours later, I have a face."

But it's not simply a face; to Long, it's something more.

"I feel a connection, because I think about them as a person like me. They loved people and had family and drank tea with their friends," she says. "But murder victims bother me a lot. I try not to think about them being in pain because then their face comes out looking like that. So I try to think about them being happy."

And there's an irony at work here, too. Long, who embarked on a second life with that college registration, sees herself as the agent of another kind of resurrection in her career.

"I like bringing people back to life," she says. "People ask me, 'How'd you do that?' And I think, boy, I don't know. It just comes out the tips of my fingers."

That said, it's not exactly effortless. She says she's always practicing.

"I observe a lot. I've watched people in airports and in restaurants, and I'd say, 'Look at that guy's skull. God, look at the cranium on that guy. Whoa!' "

Sutter, her colleague, can confirm this firsthand.

"I remember talking to you once," he recalls, "and you start staring at my forehead. And you say, 'Can I feel your brow ridge?' "

Long, 75, retired from regular work about four years ago, after more than 25 years in the field. Still, despite the arthritis in her hands, she couldn't bring herself to retire completely. These days, she works with the Wyoming State Historic Preservation Office to protect local archaeological sites.

"I'm telling you, I look back and I can't believe my life went this way," she says. "It just seems like it's all been a big, long dream."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Alletta Cooper and Michael Garofalo.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

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