February 3, 2006
Clyde Tombaugh: A Daughter's Perspective
By Annette Tombaugh-Sitze
Bits of glass, scraps of paper, and great warmth is the way I remember my dad, Clyde W. Tombaugh — the discoverer of planet Pluto. He received many awards and plaudits, but one was missing; he should have received an award for being a great father. Dad had only two children — myself (the eldest) and my brother, Alden.
Recently I picked up a piece of bedraggled paper fallen from my overloaded filing cabinet. That crinkled and yellowed paper warmly reminded me yet again how much Dad had loved us. On the paper were some drawings and arithmetic from my first-grade year. He collected and filed even our simplest products. I really didn't comprehend how much he treasured us until some eight years after his death, when I came across all these 40-plus year-old pages while archiving his vast collections of stuff. A few of those pages found their way into my filing cabinet.
The memories of my father always bring a smile to my heart. When we were little, he read stories to us in the evenings after his day working at White Sands Proving Ground (now White Sands Missile Range) near Las Cruces, New Mexico.
One book I particularly remember him reading was Robinson Crusoe. He wasn't too fond of it because he thought it cruel to animals and prejudiced. Sometimes — well, really most of the time — he would doze off now and then during the readings. We'd sit for a while on the floor and wait for him to continue. On cold days he would get up early to warm the house by turning on our heater or making a fire in the fireplace. In later years he always started the fireplace when I went to visit him on cold evenings. Dad wasn't much into cooking, but he did fix tasty poached eggs and toast for me some mornings before school, or later when I'd come to visit.
Dad loved to build things. He helped my brother build soapbox racers for scouting contests. He and my brother constructed a Lionel train table and layout that included a hand-hewn train station and fabricated foliage. He converted an old chicken house into my playhouse, and he built a tree platform and swings in nearby trees. When it came to science fair projects he was always ready to lend a hand or boards, saw and hammer. One time he built some grow boxes for my experiment on plant growth and light wavelengths. His best constructions were the memories he built for us.
Clyde enjoyed teaching more than anything else, so he'd take full advantage of teachable moments. Teachable moments always developed on road trips, and that is how I learned geology. He pointed out geological strata — sometimes with both hands — as he drove through canyons. My bedroom was in the back of our house, so it was closest to the statuary of telescopes in the backyard. Many evenings when Dad and his fellow astronomical buddies were observing on a particularly good night, Dad would excitedly tap on my window to invite me for a view of the universe. At the university he was my astronomy professor, and I worked for him as his literary research secretary. His enthusiasm for teaching prompted me to also become a teacher in the public schools and at the same university. One of my daughters now carries on that family tradition of science and teaching. Dad left a legacy of education and a love of science.
Dad was interested in and collected many things. He collected anything made of glass — some clear and some colored. He bought more eyepiece filters than he'd ever be able to use. Our house was filled with mirror blanks and mirrors in progress. Being a child of The Great Depression, he never threw out anything. Everything might be usable. Telescopes were made of discarded items such as cream separators, parts of thrashing machines, and even a broken lawn mower. He must have been the original recycler! And —why write on new paper when you could write on scrap paper? Lectures, observing notes, lists and even books were neatly handwritten on all sort of scrap paper. Frequently Dad would slam on the car brakes and leap out of the car to retrieve a little useful piece of metal from the street.
Being a child of a famous astronomer had its drawbacks too. All vacations were spent riding along in the backseat trying to wrap ourselves around "portable" telescopes. Those pretzel-like positions helped me develop a lifetime of being flexible. Dad was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He was supposed to pick me up from high school on his way home from the university. He would frequently drive right by the high school while my friends got a good laugh. Then after my long walk home, he'd ask me why I was so late getting home.
Many interesting scientific discussions took place in our home when other scientists came to visit. One of those discussions was about going to the moon. Now, remember that was a topic that was not very acceptable among "sane and serious" people in 1952. I excitedly repeated the moon travel conversation at junior high and instantly got labeled as a weirdo. It was definitely difficult to find where I fit into this situation of fame without fortune, so I finally settled on enjoying the reflected glory, hearing interesting conversations, and just being that weirdo geek.
My dad gave me a wondrous, beautiful gift that speaks to me of him every night when I step outside my door. He gave me the sky.
With NASA's New Horizons Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, my sky and circle of interesting people just got bigger.
My dog is telling me it is time for a 2 a.m. trip to the backyard, so I'm now going outside this cold winter night and enjoy the warmth of Dad's gift of the quiet, sparkling night sky.
Image credit: Tombaugh