Longform

Sky Writer

Page 14 of 15

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.

The certificate's error was preserved on a marble headstone placed on Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery's columbarium, a wall covered with headstones in memory of servicemen and women who had been cremated.

Courtney requested a correction. Today, Burnham's headstone reads correctly, but his name still appears as "Burham" in the cemetery's index.

Above his name on the headstone is a cross, put there at the request of a San Diego County public administrator assigned to oversee Burnham's cremation.

It seems inappropriate.
"No, I don't think of the universe as some sort of ultimate monarchy being ruled by a cosmic king on a throne, handing out written directives to his subordinates like a commanding general," Burnham wrote in 1982. "Is there any religion that invites doubt, skepticism, or a freely inquiring type of mind? The scientist is free to say to his colleagues: 'Gentlemen, new findings have made it necessary to revise some of our ideas.' Have you ever heard a minister make such an announcement to his flock?"

But Bruce Thomas cautions against making too much of the symbol on Burnham's memorial. "I'm sure if you asked him, he would tell you he wouldn't want any kind of headstone, that it was silly. And he probably wouldn't care what you put on it."

As she did while he was alive, Viola Courtney has seen to her brother's needs. She is executor of his estate and has wrestled with Dover Publications. Only recently, she says, did the company pay for three years of royalties owed Burnham's estate. She has waited more than a year for Dover to submit an accounting of the Handbook's sales in the final eight years of Burnham's life.

Going through her brother's papers, she also found that he had never withdrawn money from a retirement plan.

"It appears that he had money he didn't know he had," Michael Bartlett says. "He needed to be taken care of. He was like a brain in a bottle."

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega