Let me tell you about the wonderful bond that weaves between the friendships of amateur astronomers around the world.
My motivation is the passing of by best stargazing buddy for more than 30 years, Terry Alford of Johnson City, Tennessee.
The outpouring of love and condolences to Terry and his family from the astronomical community around the country reminded me of how lucky I am to have a life-long passion for the stars above, and the many people I call my stargazing friends.
I like to think amateur astronomers are a unique group of hobbyists. After all, you don’t see amateur biologists or chemists setting up their equipment for people to come and enjoy.
Stargazing, I believe, is a latent gene in all of us humans, going back to the primitive cave man who looked up and noticed the phase of the Moon, the bright pinpoints of light and the hazy belt of the Milky Way.
I always say that everyone at one time has a curiosity about the stars, Sun and Moon. We all know a stargazer who is the “go-to guy” for such questions as “What’s the bright star high overhead in our Summer nights?” (In 2017, it’s planet Jupiter). And the fact I’ve been writing my “Stargazer” column for 21 years in The Loafer gives some indication that people enjoy reading about what’s up in the sky.
But it’s the people, like in all of our hobbies, that make amateur astronomy so special. And Terry Alford was one of the exceptional stargazers whose impact among his peers made him stand out like few among us.
An Army Lieutenant Colonel, Alford worked many years for the Johnson City Sears Co., and was a natural leader in the Jaycees. He retired to tinker in his woodshop and enjoy his wife and grandchildren, becoming a voracious reader and willing participant in local and regional stargazing events.
One of the founders of Bays Mt. Astronomy Club in Kingsport nearly 40 years ago, I met Terry at my first meeting back in 1984, as well as one of the other astro club founders, Bob Smith of Kingsport. These two men became my best friends to this day, as well as the big brothers I never had. And like me, our bond was that of modern day “Renaissance Men,” interested in a lot of diverse subjects and master of none—except astronomy.
I’ve always said how can somebody know so much about a subject and still be an “amateur.” But that is who amateur astronomers are: there might be a million of our brethren in American, while there are less than 10,000 professional astronomers world-wide.
What is unique about spending nights under the stars is it becomes so much more than stargazing. Yes, we look through telescopes at the planets, split some double stars, probe the faint, fuzzy galaxies and nebulae, and tryout the latest eyepiece or enhancing filter to stretch our vision of the Universe to the limit.
But as we gaze about with our naked eyes hoping for a needle-streaking meteor to split the night, there is a lot of small talk—and it’s not all about astronomy. Those are the times when I looked up to my “big brothers” Terry and Bob for some personal guidance, chewing on their ears about my latest drama at home or work. And they would unload their problems on me as well.
That’s one of the benefits of having friends in amateur astronomy. The comradery goes way beyond the stars. And I’m very grateful for that.
When I think of the nights I’ve spent stargazing with Terry and Bob during three decades of friendship, it literally adds up to years of just standing around surveying the Universe and talking. The same is true when I add up the nights Terry and I have spent together in hotels, motels, tents and cabins as invited speakers the last 30 years to astronomy conferences hosted by clubs in Knoxville, Charlotte, Miami, Hickory and more. It’s more than six months of my life, and thank goodness neither one of us are heavy snorers!
Terry was also a regular character in our astronomy parody, “Starry Nite Live!” which myself and others have performed for more than 30 years. Regional stargazers remember him as the “Redneck Astronomer” Terry Lupusworth as well as “Col. Twilight,” who riled against the CIA—citizens in astronomy! His wife, Cathy, supported the craziness and attended many astronomy events… Terry was an adjunct professor and taught astronomy lab at East Tennessee State University for more than 10 years.
And we all know that when you add a “G” to astronomy you get “Gastronomy!” So, food bonded a lot of us stargazers during the years, particularly at annual astro picnics. Terry was an excellent cook; his Cajun gumbo was a delicious tribute to his Louisiana roots.
Terry, like me, are kind of old school stargazers, probably an influence of our Baby Boomer roots. We both like eyeballing objects through our telescopes, he in particularly shunning fancy equipment of our 21st Century. And me? I enjoy sketching objects like the planets and Moon and occasionally slapping my Nikon camera in a telescope for single frame shots instead of the multiple stacking of CCD astro imagery.
Terry also carried the torch for observing with binoculars, which nearly everyone has a pair for sports, birding, whatever. He made a unique binocular mount for a tripod allowing hands free, steady observing. He marketed those for a while, as well as an observing chair that had an adjustable seat. Literally hundreds of amateur astronomers all over America will enjoy those items this summer, made by “Alford Mfg.”
When Terry breathed his last terrestrial breath on June 8th, 2017, he was working on his 71st orbit around the Sun. Finding out the sad news, another astronomy brother, Bristol native and long-time Florida resident George Fleenor posted on his Facebook wall a fitting eulogy. I soon followed with my own Facebook post about losing my astro big brother. As did Robin Byrne of the Bays Mountain club.
The outpouring of compassion from all over America was overwhelming with one constant comment: “Terry was a good man.”
And what more can anybody ask for when they leave this Earth—to be remembered as a good person?
And a terrific friend to many Terry Alford certainly was. He will always be in my heart as a brother I love and whom I’ll deeply miss.
Rest in “Colonel”. I’ll see you again one day among the stars.