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Toddler to Technician


My experience with the McDonald Observatory began at an early age. In fact, when I was just a toddler in the 1950s. I vaguely remember visiting the observatory with family members and being simultaneously awed and terrified by the drive up. The 82" Otto Struve was the only one of the larger telescopes in existence at the time. We would make a day event of it, driving up from Marfa early and spending most of the day in the beautiful setting atop the Davis Mountains. A picnic with barbacoa cooked on a large pit at one of the road side parks leading up to Mt. Locke was always the way we completed our experience. Once at the observatory, the adults would split off from the brood of youngsters, leaving one of the adults to tend to us while they all went up to the 82" for a look see. I don't know what sort of tours they had at the time, if any, but I believe the telescope was accessible to visitors then. We kids were left to our own entertainment, supervised by a parent, and we made the most of it. It must have been like herding cats for whomever was left in charge because I can remember at least half a dozen to a dozen cousins at any one visit.

My most vivid recollection was one that could have had a tragic ending. On one visit after the adults had all gone up to enjoy the sites at the 82", we children and our adult attendant, my father's brother, entertained ourselves with child's play near the car park. At the time, if my recollection is accurate, visitor's cars were parked on the lower loop road where the 30" and 36" telescopes are now located. As we played, some of us noticed a visitor's vehicle slip its brakes and began to move backwards down the slopped parking area toward the drop off on the far side of Mt. Locke. We screamed and caught uncle's attention and he reacted almost instantly. He yelled at us to stay back and raced toward the slowly moving vehicle. He reached it and opened the drivers door, leaped in and applied the foot brake, stopping the car just before it plunged down the mountain. After all was said and done, he was both gratefully thanked by the car's owner who found it sitting not where he parked it, and chastised by our adult group for having taken such a risk to save it from a devastating plunge. I was too small to understand all of it at the time, but in my mind, my uncle was a brave hero for risking his life and doing what he did.

Now, these many years later, I find myself back at McDonald Observatory once again. Only this time, I am part of the staff at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope doing work as a technical staff associate. An electro-mechanical technician to be more precise. I came by this job after having left Texas in my youth to make my own way in the world, meeting and marrying the love of my life, Yolanda. We spent ten years in California, where she is from, raised two beautiful daughters, Ida and Jolene, and struggled as a young couple to make a go of it. Circumstances caused us to move back to Texas where I became employed in the oil and gas business for almost fourteen years. After a downsizing layoff, I decided to go back to school and hone my skills, acquire new ones, and prepare myself for another career. In late 1999, three years after first light for the Hobby-Eberly Telescope, I applied for and was hired to my present job. I was ecstatic to be employed and live at such a prestigious world renown observatory and to be back near my hometown of Marfa. I have since had the absolute privilege of working with the most professional colleagues, current and past, both here at the HET and in Austin at the astronomy department. Together we have not only successfully commissioned and operated one of the world's premier spectrographic telescopes, but are currently undertaking the next phase of cutting edge astronomical science with the HETDEX project. Scheduled for completion sometime in 2014, we will be poised to make history by looking for the meaning of Dark Energy.

I have been at the HET for fourteen years now and have enjoyed every single one of them. From doing the everyday grunt work to even being deputy manager of the facility for a short stint, it has been an adventure. I love what I do, where I do it, and working with my colleagues every day. It has been rewarding and gratifying knowing I have been a small part of the science that we produce here in association with astronomers and their departments all over the world. I can truthfully say that I am at peace with the beautiful natural environment of the Davis Mountains, and I am at peace and one with the universe around me. Every night when I gaze up into the dark clear skies of West Texas, I marvel at being a part of the whole. The Milky Way appears to me as a river that can take anyone that wants to go on the journey to the far reaches of the universe and beyond. Who knows, with HETDEX, maybe we will.