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Astronomy at KU after 1967: Thom Gandet

Thom Gandet sent me an e-mail recently that contains some interesting words about what occurred at K.U. after I left in 1967. He was an undergraduate major in astronomy and assisted Dr. Storer in various ways, for example he was Dr. Storer's teaching assistant for two years. He has unfortunately become afflicted with multiple sclerosis (MS) in recent years and writes, "I'm sorry to have taken so long to respond. The MS flared up some weeks ago, affecting my legs: when I walk, I feel like I must be walking through molasses. Fortunately, the symptoms are improving, as they usually do, so the worst is over."

"After you left for Los Alamos, things in K.U. astronomy went downhill for awhile. However, Paul Etzel and I decided to show there was still interest in astronomy and that the observatory could still be made to do some useful things by students, at any rate we were full of optimism. Paul took on the task of getting the photometer system working, while I tackled the spectrograph; we concentrated our efforts on binary systems with visions of Otto Struve's work dancing in our heads. Beard and Tom Armstrong were supportive of our efforts, and we got some money for electronics, photographic and darkroom supplies, and to convert an old measuring machine into a projection measuring engine. Tom Armstrong was particularly supportive, and without that I don't think the program would have lasted beyond 1969 or 1970 (Note by HGH: Dr. Storer retired in 1970, although he continued to do some teaching). I also worked for Armstrong programming data-reduction algorithms for his solar particle count experiments; and during two summers had undergraduate research grants which allowed me to indulge my spectroscopic addictions. Soon the university began searching for a new faculty astronomer, so that there were a couple of years when we had pretty much free run of the observatory and equipment."

Eventually Dr.Peter Wehinger was hired, and his wife, Dr. Susan Wyckoff assumed the position of an adjunct professor. (Note by HGH: I received a letter from them indicating that they had become disillusioned with the situation at K.U., and shortly thereafter they went elsewhere. At present they occupy positions at Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ).

"Dr. Steve Shawl took Wehinger's place, and I was fortunate to take a class or two from him. At last K.U. astronomy seemed back on track. My last semester there was 1972-3; after seven years of trying to get my degree, working part-time to help out my family at home, and being defeated by calculus, I'd had enough of poverty and endless struggling. I left for California in January of 1973 and by April I'd found a permanent job writing software at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where I stayed, working for various contract outfits until 1990 when I was forced to go on disability because of the MS."

"Twice while at K.U. I worked at astronomy jobs elsewhere: during 1967-8 at the Allegheny Observatory where Beardsley and I observed Omega Piscium, a binary with a rotation of the line of apsides of about 50 years, and during 1970 at Kitt Peak as Helmut Abt's research assistant."

"My last semester at K.U. was probably the best. There were four of us sharing Tom Armstrong's house while he was on sabbatical. Of those Steve Hawley eventually got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Cruz and became a NASA astronaut; he 'launched' the Hubble Telescope from the Space Shuttle bay, and, I believe, will also 'launch' the next NASA Great Observatory. Ron Snell is on the faculty at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and doing some great things in infrared astronomy. The fourth fellow, Don Bucher, equally bright and talented, seems to have dropped off the earth around 1978 or so, and was headed for law school last I heard."

"It was all great fun, and I wouldn't trade a minute of it. I even enjoyed the rigor and discipline of Dr. Storer's spherical astronomy classes, and made use of my notes over the years. The experiences of trying to pry the secrets of the universe--we never aimed low in those days!--out of metallic coated glass and assorted optics and electronics were exhilarating, and it was that challenge that kept me there so many years."

In a letter to me dated October 19, 1967, he wrote: "In the eventuality that you do not return to K.U. next year, it has been my infinite pleasure of knowing you and studying under you. Despite your protestations to the contrary, you are much admired and beloved by the students in the astronomy department." No wonder I have kept this letter all these years!