Roger Paige sneaked away from a business meeting to check it out. Leonard Pressley dragged his 12-year-old daughter into the city. Mike Davison took a half-hour break from the friends he had flown here to visit just to get a glimpse.

All species of dinosaur-lovers were on hand yesterday at the National Geographic Society museum for the grand opening of an exhibit on a newly discovered plant-eating dinosaur: families taking in the sights of the nation's capital, elderly couples enjoying an autumn afternoon, little children who reached over the railing to touch the bones.

But perhaps most visible in the large crowd were middle-aged men who never gave up their boyhood fascination with prehistoric beasts.

There was Paige, 53, an arts administrator from Lexington, Ky., standing under the towering skeletal model of the Jobaria tiguidensis, craning his neck to take in the whole of what scientists believe was a 20-ton, 30-foot-tall creature that roamed Africa 135 million years ago. He said he was playing hooky from work.

"I didn't want to miss this. Why have a conference in Washington if you don't get a chance to go out and see these things?" he asked. "I can remember when I was a kid being interested, but it was a completely different attitude. As an adult, you really gain perspective on this."

Then, gazing up again at the dinosaur, he added, "It's just spectacular."

Davison, 34, a registered nurse from Milwaukee who was in town for the weekend visiting friends, wandered into the museum alone, then circled the exhibit, reading every display card and snapping pictures for nearly 30 minutes.

He said he had seen a Discovery Channel program about how University of Chicago paleontologist Paul Sereno traveled 1,000 miles into the Sahara Desert to recover 25 tons of fossil and rock in temperatures reaching 120 degrees. The show was so engrossing he couldn't turn it off.

"Kudos to this guy. It's incredible they were able to excavate all this stuff. It's just really, really cool," said Davison, who keeps the wooden dinosaur models from his childhood in a crate in his attic.

He pointed at one of the displays. "Look at this! It's got like an elephant foot with a claw sticking out. That is one large beast, isn't it? It's incredible."

Pressley, a scientific manager for a U.S. defense agency, said he drove his family from Fort Washington to see the exhibit, which ends Nov. 28. He admits it was his idea.

"I've been researching this for days on the Internet, and I told my family we were going to see this. I mean, it's hard to fathom a life object of this size wander the Earth," he said. "It's a good experience for everyone."

His daughter, Julia, had become only slightly less enthusiastic. "I think it's very, very educational because you learn about the bones and stuff," she said. "Well, it's better than homework."

CAPTION: Christian Kerrigan, 5, is awed by the size of the dinosaur in the new exhibit at the National Geographic Society museum.