Longform

Sky Writer

Page 6 of 15

Somehow, the two of them found time in that demanding schedule to spend occasional nights simply touring the night sky with a telescope. Thomas says those nights are among his fondest memories.

"Bob was great to be with. I'd be the student. The stuff he had in his memory was just amazing."

Like others, Thomas describes Burnham as exceedingly shy and reclusive. Only a few times, in their close 20-year collaboration, did Burnham make the trip down from Mars Hill to spend an evening at the Thomas home.

Burnham himself lived in a cabin on the observatory's property. He'd moved into the rent-free home in lieu of a raise after his first year of work, and turned the place into a virtual museum.

Viola Courtney's daughter Donna made frequent trips from Prescott and later Phoenix to visit her uncle. Often she would find him sitting in a rocking chair on pine needles outside his cabin, enjoying silence.

Inside, the cabin was a fascinating clutter. There were rocks that glowed under ultraviolet light. Ancient coins and other artifacts of long-dead cultures. Fossils of trilobites and sharks' teeth. And on nearly every wall, from floor to ceiling, books.

Donna says she was careful to travel alone to see him. With people he knew well, Burnham relaxed and could be quite talkative. If Donna brought someone her uncle didn't know, he'd clam up.

Once, she made a boyfriend wait in the car for a half-hour while she spent time with Burnham.

Burnham overcame his shyness sufficiently to have several girlfriends during his Lowell years. Viola Courtney and Thomas remember one woman in particular who seemed to bring Burnham nearly to the point of sociability.

"I remember that she was blond and curvaceous," says Courtney. "She had visited the observatory on a trip. He would give talks to the tourists, and she was impressed by him. She was so taken, he arranged for her to have a summer job."

Thomas remembers that Burnham was similarly taken, and that one time the shy astronomer gushed: "We're really together on our philosophy." Burnham was so far gone, Thomas says, he didn't mind being seen holding hands with the girl.

The curvaceous blond herself, now Professor Julie Lutz of Washington State University, says she had just graduated from San Diego State University and spent the summer of 1965 at Lowell Observatory as a 20-year-old intern before beginning graduate work at the University of Illinois.

"Bob was very, very, very shy. But he was fascinating. His place was filled with fascinating stuff," she remembers. "He was a pleasant person, but, you know, he didn't talk to too many people at Lowell.

"He was like Tutankhamen's tomb. Once you got to know him, you opened a passageway and then a lot of treasures would appear."

She laughs when she's told of Burnham's comment about his philosophical girlfriend.

"I am a big reader of books. At that time, I think I'd read a lot of philosophy and history. I was probably pretty intellectual for my age. He was probably impressed that he could talk to me."

She lived in a cabin near Burnham's, and remembers walking hand in hand through the woods with the astronomer.

"Yeah, and that was about it," she says with a chuckle.
Their fling ended with the summer.
But by that year, 1965, Burnham's true love--the Celestial Survey he'd started 10 years earlier--was finally near completion.


Donna Courtney remembers walking around and around a long table at Lowell Observatory which was covered with papers.

The year was 1966. She was only 6 years old, but like the rest of the family, as well as Norm Thomas and his children, she had been enlisted by her uncle to circle the table with pages in her hands.

Collating hundreds of copies of the first of what would be an eight-volume, 2,000-page book seemed like an eternal task, and sticks in the memory of everyone who helped.

Burnham had decided to publish his Celestial Handbook himself.
He would write later that the idea of self-publication had come to him gradually, particularly after he began working at Lowell Observatory.

His employment there gave him access to the mountains of information in Lowell's library, as well as the images on the thousands of glass plates he worked with every day.

His survey quickly became more than simply the observational notes of an amateur astronomer. Burnham could now include more scientific depth and thousands of intriguing photographs. He also injected material related to his other interests, including photographs of ancient coins that carried astronomical themes, discourses on the lore of constellations, even thousand-year-old Chinese poetry about the sky.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega