The Jovial Genius of Amateur Astronomy

Leo John Scanlon, 1903-1999

by Eric Fischer, Editor of The Guide Star

Beginnings | First Telescope | Founding of the AAAP | Valley View Observatory | Buhl Planetarium | Albert Einstein | The "Eyes of God" | AAAP Ceremonies | Historic Marker and Asteroid Scanlon | Leo's Favorite Things | Recollections | Leo's Unpublished Letter to Posterity

Leo under Saturn
Scanlon Family Collection
(photo by Pitsburgh Post Gazette)
Leo John Scanlon was born to John Scanlon and Mary (Knoebel) Scanlon on April 30, 1903 in a second-story home at the corner of East Street and North Avenue on what is now Pittsburgh's North Side. He was the second of 12 surviving children, nine boys and three girls. "Being second-born was no problem ... you just followed your brother's footsteps. You got his clothes when he outgrew them, and you slept two and three in a bed, as was necessary because of a large family. But it was a very happy life. I didn't feel frustrated or deprived in any way." As for playing with his school and neighborhood friends, Leo recalled, "I suppose the fact that we didn't have TV forced us to read or to find other ways of enjoying ourselves. I think that was highly desirable." Leo's early schooling included St. Mary's (where prayers were said in German) and St. Peter's parochial schools.

At age 7, he saw Halley's Comet, which left a very strong impression and a triggered a life-long interest in astronomy. "It was a big thing with a hairy tail," he remembered. "It was as bright as the Moon and took up at least a quarter of the sky. I wanted to see it again. My father said 'Just keep breathing and you will be here when it comes back in 75 years.' "

In 1915, Leo's father obtained a 300-book library as a gift from philanthropist Elizabeth Walker Ponterfact. Leo proceeded to catalog and index all these books, and read most of them at least once. "I had an interest in anything I didn't understand." Included in the Ponterfact library was an astronomy book, Samuel P. Langley's The New Astronomy, which covered solar research at Allegheny Observatory. Leo was so thoroughly enthralled by the book that he read it several times, and thereafter borrowed astronomy books from the North Side branch of Carnegie Library. "I made a resolution to myself to sometime own a telescope to see some of the celestial wonders described in these books." He first met that goal in 1920 when he purchased a 10X achromatic draw-tube telescope from the B. K. Elliot store on Sixth Street "This telescope was of some value in looking at the Moon," he said, "but was unsatisfactory on the stars and planets."
Leo as a teenager
Leo as a teenager
(Scanlon Family Collection)

To expand his clerical skills, Leo enrolled in Park Institute Business College on the North Side, taking courses such as touch typing, Pitman shorthand and double-entry bookkeeping. Around the start of World War I, he obtained a job at Atlantic Glass as a stenographer, using his brother's baptismal certificate to get around an age stipulation for full-time employees. Leo also supported the war effort by handling clerical work for his father, who was in charge of enrolling Army draftees.

After several years, Leo obtained a better-paying stenographer's job at the P&LE Railroad offices on Carson Street. However, his father preferred that Leo serve as a bookkeeper for his own plumbing business and position himself to begin a plumbing apprenticeship. The logic was that by the essential nature of the industry, plumbers were never out of work. "You couldn't get very high in an office, and it wasn't going to be a very high paying job," he recalled. "But plumbers were always paid more than office workers, so I was happy to be a plumber."

Leo and his brother Frank were both athletically inclined, and both participated in the National Gymnastics Meet in Chicago in 1921. Some of the events included the 100-yard dash, broad jump, high jump, parallel bars, shot put and relay races. In the same year, Leo was registered as an apprentice plumber (a 5-year program) and advanced to a full-fledged journeyman plumber in 1926 in Union Local #27. Two years later, he landed his first full-time plumbing job with Weldon & Kelly Co., and would remain with this company, in various capacities, for the next 55 years.


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