Sky Writer

Stargazers revere Arizona Robert Burnham Jr., creator of the most complete, practical, inspirational book ever written about the night sky. But like so many people of genius, he would spend his last years alone and destitute.

"Somebody had told me that he claimed to be Robert Burnham. This is just incredible. I'm sure no one believed him. I mean, you don't expect that someone in that condition would be capable of producing such a work. The book is on every astronomer's shelf.

"What a resource he could have been."


Dave Amero remembers that Robert Burnham was a very nice man who lived down the hall from him at the Golden West Hotel, a residence hotel in downtown San Diego which, judging by the people lounging in the lobby, is inhabited primarily by older men with little income.

Amero and Dick Frishkoren are behind the hotel's counter in the center of a large lobby which hints at a grandiose past long gone.

Frishkoren is a snappy dresser, and it's difficult to believe he's ever actually stayed in the place. Amero, on the other hand, has dull eyes and a simple but straightforward way of speaking, and it doesn't seem surprising that he's lived in the hotel for 28 years.

Both men remember Burnham staying at the hotel several years, and the dates 1986 to 1993 sound right.

"He said he was an author and that he was working on a new book. He said something about painting, and he spent a lot of time just sitting in the lobby," Amero says. The hotel lies about a mile from Balboa Park.

Frishkoren estimates that in those years, Burnham would have paid about $200 per month to stay in the hotel.

Amero also remembers that Burnham seemed ill.


In the fall of 1991, Bruce Thomas had relocated to San Diego. One day, he took a walk in Balboa Park with two friends and found himself amid the weekend vendors. There were performers of various types. Tarot readings could be had cheaply. And a man sitting on a bench was selling paintings of cats.

He seemed familiar, Thomas thought as he walked past him. The beard threw him off, but then it came to him: It was Robert Burnham.

Thomas turned back to him.
"Bob?"
Burnham kept staring at the ground. Then, without looking up, he said: "Yeah, it's me. Hi, Bruce."

Thomas sat down with Burnham and introduced his friends, telling them that this was the man he mentioned so often.

"It was awkward. My friends sidled away while I talked to Bob for 10 minutes or so. He seemed uncomfortable. He said that he'd been in San Diego on and off for many years, and had liked it and decided to move there. He said he was just taking it easy and was still getting checks from Dover."

Thomas bought a painting for $5.
When Thomas asked Burnham where he was staying, Burnham said he was living somewhere downtown that didn't have a phone. Then he changed the subject.

Twice more Thomas sought out Burnham, visiting him in the park for brief conversations. He purchased three more paintings.

Then, a few days after Christmas, Norm Thomas visited his son, and the two of them went to the park to reunite the two old Lowell astronomers.

"It was hard to tell how Bob reacted to that. He was friendly and talked with Dad amicably. I could tell that he was forcing himself to be upbeat," Bruce Thomas says.

"They chatted for a little, mostly about astronomy. Bob asked about Lowell."
Norm Thomas told Burnham that he planned to name an asteroid after him. But there was a problem. An asteroid already carried the name Burnham, named after a turn-of-the-century astronomer of no relation. But Thomas remembered that Burnham had told him that in Germany, his father's parents had gone by the name Bernheim. So that's the name Thomas planned to use, to honor his longtime co-worker.

"Bob seemed happy about that," Bruce Thomas says.
The three of them had their picture taken.
Norm Thomas describes it as a pleasant visit and nothing more. But his son says the encounter affected his father deeply. "I think he was probably very upset, but he doesn't like to talk about it."

Bruce Thomas would make several more visits to the park looking for Burnham.
Each time, he looked in vain.


In the summer of 1995, Donna Courtney's husband, David Bastuk, came home with an assignment from school. He was taking a night course to learn to be a private investigator, and he was assigned the task of finding a missing person.

So Courtney suggested that he find her uncle. She supplied him with what she knew about him.

A few days later, Bastuk told her that he had done a search on Burnham's social security number, and, according to a computer database, Burnham was dead.

It would take Viola Courtney another nine months to learn that Burnham had died in San Diego's Mercy Hospital. She was slowed by a misspelled death certificate; a clerk had typed "Burham."

The certificate indicates that Burnham was suffering from a host of ailments, all probably related to the gradual deterioration of his heart. Dr. John Dodge, the physician listed on the certificate, agreed to discuss Burnham's file, but then changed his mind.

There is no indication of how long Burnham had suffered before he entered the hospital on March 9, or what treatment he may have received before that time. Neither Dave Amero at Golden West Hotel nor Dennis Mammana at Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater remembers Burnham's needing to be hospitalized.

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