Leo Scanlon: 1903 - 1999


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"Eyes of God" | AAAP Ceremonies | Historic Marker and Asteroid Scanlon | Leo's Favorite Things | Recollections | Leo's Unpublished Letter to Posterity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 Scanlon

First Notice to the AAAP Listserver

It is with the greatest sorrow that I must tell you that Leo J. Scanlon, widely recognized as the father of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, died Saturday, Nov. 27, 1999 of cancer in Fosnight Nursing Home, Gibsonia, where he was under hospice care. Scanlon was 96.

You also may recall Leo built Valley View Observatory, the world's first aluminum-domed astronomical observatory, in 1930 in the city near the Ross Township border. Dr. Truman P. Kohman, honorary member of the AAAP, was successful in petitioning to have an asteroid, 8131 Scanlon, named for Leo. He was told of this honor June 27, 1998, during the ceremony for the erection of the state historical marker commemorating Valley View Observatory.

In June, 1999, Leo acknowledged the 70th anniversary of the AAAP, which now is nearing 600 members, making it one of the largest popular astronomy clubs in the United States. Our organization, that started June 9, 1929, in a meeting in which four of seven members attended, now is the largest astronomical society in Pennsylvania.

Of course, our greatest sympathies go out to Leo's family as we mourn not only their loss, but ours, too. For those of you who never met Leo, he was a kind, gentle and generous man who, while he was a plumber by trade, brought the stars to Earth for many, many people.


Pete Zapadka
Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh Inc.

Eulogy Given by Flaccus Stifel

November 30, 1999

Nativity Catholic Church, Pittsburgh

It is my privilege to say a few words this morning on behalf of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. In 1929 when Leo had completed his first telescope and had met others interested in astronomy and telescope making, he and Chester Roe organized the Association. From a time when Leo was influential in the design and development of the Buhl Planetarium and Science Center, this organization has grown and flourished. Leo maintained a life-long interest and involvement with the Association, which provided the opportunity for so many to come to know him and share his devotion to astronomy. He loved to teach both public visitors to his observatory and association members. His personal charm and knowledge were legendary. His humor and good will would emerge to help in the face of difficult situations and his generosity was an example which helped bring out the best in many who served the Association.

Along with his tremendous dedication to astronomy Leo had a legendary sense of humor. He and Glenn Winterhalter were known as the practical jokers of Allegheny Observatory, and kept everyone there on their toes and laughing much of the time. He used his humor to help people remember things about the sky. There are hundreds of stories; the eyepiece which saw through solid metal, the miracle of removing bubbles from the center of glass mirrors, and the famous "God's eyes" incident.

Typical of Leo's influence upon the lives of the Association's members are these thoughts by Wade Barbin: "I was introduced to Leo Scanlon over thirty-seven years ago when I first became a member. At the time I had no idea how his love of the heavens had already influenced my youth. Some of my earliest memories are of my grandmother taking me shopping at the old Farmers Market House on the North Side. Even then I was fascinated with the beautiful building across the street, the Buhl Planetarium. If it wasn't for Leo's efforts to bring the planetarium to Pittsburgh I would not have been able to spend all those many long Saturday afternoons roaming around in that building and watching sky shows. It was Leo's articles in Scientific American that helped me build my first telescope and later my own observatory. I believe Leo had a profound influence on just about everyone that came to know him. Leo always seemed to accept his accomplishments as cherished memories and always made them more interesting by having a humorous story to go along with them. In all the years that I have known Leo, the one thing I have always had for him was my deepest respect. I can only imagine what St. Pete might say to Leo as he stands before the Pearly Gates: 'Hey, not bad for a plumber!' I will miss him."

Leo's presence and strength of character were such that to know him was to like and indelibly remember him. In the mid 50's, when the Association was well established, two nondescript high-school girls, both named Beth, joined the Association. Leo not only made these two young women feel comfortable, but always called them by name and made sure they attended the regular meetings, not just the "junior" club gatherings. One of these girls went on to become an astrophysicist; the other a physician and, incidentally, my wife. Beth says that she can exactly recall how Leo dressed, how he sounded, and many of his kindnesses, four decades later.

Almost like a human child, the Association bears the mark and character of Leo. His influence is still present through those who were attracted to it through him and who learned from and were influenced by him. He exemplified qualities of dedicated work toward the accomplishment of goals but with modesty and restraint, and of not taking ourselves too seriously so that a leavening of good humor and fellowship attends our gatherings, and a wonderful awe and curiosity about the majority of God's creation, which lies far beyond this earth, glimpsed in the silent wonder of the starry sky. Farewell, Leo.

Truman Kohman

Truman Kohman (left), Leo (center), and John Schwartz (right) share a story at the Wagman Phase II dedication
During high school I was a member of the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO), observing from 1931 through 1934, and was for a while the youngest active observer. In early 1934 I received a questionnaire from another member about observing frequency and methods. I returned the questionnaire, but completely forgot about it for over half a century.

Then, after I had come to know Leo as a member of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh, I received a handwritten note signed by Leo J. Scanlon, dated 6/22/85, saying, "Here's the original response to my inquiry. Upon reflection you have a greater interest in it than my heirs will have, so keep it." It was written on the back of the "QUESTIONNAIRE FOR VARIABLE STAR WORKERS" filled out in my own handwriting, dated Mar 5, 1934. I had reported that I was observing with a 3-inch refractor about 10 nights per month, had been doing so for 2 and 2/3 years, and had 60 stars on my program. It also had some answers about observing methods, and an extensive comment on observing red stars.

At the 1994 March AAAP meeting Leo gave the featured talk, describing the founding and early days of the Association and his experiences as an amateur astronomer, including his participation as an observer with the AAVSO. He mentioned that in the 1930s he sent a questionnaire to "a number of prominent and prolifc observers". I had brought along my questionnaire, but since I was not among the most prominent and prolific observers, I doubted that it was the same one. But after the meeting Leo confirmed that it was one of those he had sent and received back. We were reminded of the lines in Longfellow's poem "The Arrow and the Song:"

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where ....
Long, long afterward, in an oak,
I found the arrow, still unbroke ....

Truman presents Leo with citation
Truman Kohman presents Leo with the certificate of the citation for 8131 Scanlon
(Photo by Jane Kohman)
In 1995 1 arranged for the naming of the minor planet 5502 Brashear and in 1996 of 3110 Wagman, by their respective discoverers. I thought Scanlon was worthy of having an asteroid named after him, so I contacted Dr. Eleanor Helin with a suggestion that she devote one of her discoveries to this. She agreed with my assessment of Scanlon and kindly agreed to oblige. The result, in early 1998 June, was 8131 Scanlon. Leo was surprised and greatly pleased to learn about this at the 1998 June 27 unveiling of the Pennsylvania Historic Marker commemorating his construction of the first aluminum-dome observatory.

On 1998 July 221, my wife Jane, Eric Fischer, and Joyce Osborne-Fischer visited Leo at the Fosnight Personal Care Home. We presented him with a framed certificate of the citation for 8131 Scanlon. A photograph of the presentation appears at right. We found him in very good spirits and anxious to discuss astronomy and the AAAP.

Perhaps less well known than his astronomical activities is the fact that he was an active jeweler. He was also quite generous, and over the years he presented me with a tiger's eye bola and Jane with two pendants which he had made.

I will miss the enjoyable contacts with this congenial colleague and friend with his infective enthusiasm and humor.

Tom Reiland

I had so many enjoyable times with Leo that I can't remember them all. The funny thing is that Leo probably did. One of my best memories, and a night of personal satisfaction, was in October of 1985 when I brought Leo up to Allegheny Observatory to observe Halley's Comet for the second apparition of the comet in his lifetime. The Comet was not very bright at the time and I was amazed at his ability not only to see it, but to describe in detail the appearance, shape, size and brightness of it. He waited 75 years for his second look; unfortunately, the Comet's pass this time around was not as good as in 1910.

In 1975, when I proposed the idea of building a club observatory, Leo was one of the few senior members who supported the project. Leo was always there to offer advice and support to the new group of officers in the mid 70's to early 80's who would revive the organization he helped form 50 some years before. He would invite us into his home and show us records of the history of the growth of the AAAP, inspiring us to continue his great effort.

He taught us how to show people the "Eyes of God:" locate Epsilon Lyrae, the Double-Double, with a Newtonian Reflector and throw the image out of focus so that the secondary mirror makes two dark pupils in the center of the two white eyeballs that are the enlarged image of Epsilon.

Finally, Leo was one of the biggest flirts I've ever met. He would flirt with most of the women in the club, especially some of the widows. I remember driving Leo and a female club member home after a meeting and he, jokingly, asked her if she would be interested in moving in with him. He said that two could live cheaper than one. I don't think that this was the first time he joked about it, but I do know that it wasn't the last. I heard him say the same thing to one or two other women in the club. The last AAAP meeting that Leo attended, about five years ago, was also his last program, detailing his life as an amateur astronomer. After the program, Leo was surrounded by four or five women, all trying to get his attention. I could tell by his expression that he was enjoying that moment and deserved it. He deserves all the praise that we can give. Thank you Leo for all those wonderful moments.

My Fond and Inspiring Memories of Leo Scanlon - Rich McLaughlin

Back in the 1950's Leo Scanlon inspired many amateurs to follow his example in constructing their own telescopes. Among these were my brother and me. He showed us how to grind and polish telescope mirrors at the Buhl Planetarium optical shop. He provided the information we needed to test the primary mirrors for the proper parabolic surface needed to focus the parallel rays from a star to a single point. It was a 10 inch reflecting telescope that we made back then that my brother's son and I used to observe the Mercury Transit on November 15, 1999 in Phoenix, Arizona. I showed Leo a drawing I made of the planet's dark image on the sun a few days before he died.

William K. Hartman, Robert and I had the privilege of visiting Leo at his Valley View Observatory. Leo showed us his historic aluminum dome and his telescope. Leo displayed his famous sense of humor when Bill Hartman showed him a telescope mirror he was working on that had a few scratches on the polished surface. Leo looked at the mirror and said "So this is where the battle was fought." I am sure that Leo helped inspire Bill to go on to become a professional astronomer.

Last Spring I had two photo enlargements made from two slides I had taken during the construction of the "Moonwatch" Station on the roof of Allegheny Observatory. When I showed them to Leo, he told me all the details of how he and other AAAP members built the station. Leo's input inspired me to make a display about Moonwatch for Astronomy Day at the Science Center. Later, I took the display panels and the description I had written to show Leo. He said he would like the photos and display panels placed in the aluminum dome observatory that we plan to construct at Wagman.


Email received by AAAP Treasurer John Holtz:

Subject: Re: [ASTRO] Re: First aluminum on a dome
Author: Lenny Abbey
Date: 2/23/99 3:00 AM

I fondly remember a Sunday afternoon spent with Leo J. Scanlon in 1971. I was in that part of the country on a business trip, and I decided to visit Pittsburg on the weekend. As I passed the expressway exit marked "Valley View" something clicked in my brain. Whe I got to the motel, I picked up a phone book and looked up Scanlon. I figured that there might be a chance that he was still alive.

He was indeed very much alive, a healthy 85 years of age. He invited me over on Sunday afternoon, and we spent several hours talking about the good old days. This was sort of strange, as I was only 33 years old...yet we had many friends in common. Mostly his age! The observatory was in a state of decay, yet it was interesting to visit this historic spot. He and I were the only people in sight who knew that it was historic!

As I was leaving, I admired a rare old book in his library, which I had been searching for for years. To my amazement he presented it to me! At first I desisted, but he told me how much the book had meant to him, and seeing as he did not have many years left, it was important to him to place his treasures in the hands of those who would appreciate them.

This thought provoking bit of wisdom so greatly impressed me that I have begun to lay out an elaborate scheme of disposition for my most treasured possessions.

Inside the front cover of the book (Splendour of the Heavens) was a newspaper clipping containing a picture of Leo and Albert Einstein talking together.


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