|Kenneth W. Willcox 1943 - 1999
It is so rare in this day and age that one can actually say that they've known an honest man.
Someone that you can always trust. Someone that really believes in what he says and actually lives that life.
Ken Willcox was such a man.
On Feb. 26th, a year to the day after we traveled to the island of Aruba and shared the wondrous and rare event of standing in the shadow of the moon, he left this world.
Ken traveled hundreds of miles and saw his first total eclipse in 1979. It was ironic that I too watched and photographed that eclipse, but from a different location... less than a mile from Ken's
house in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Fate would have it that our paths would not cross at this place and time. I joined the local astronomy club only to find out that their monthly meetings always fell on a night that I had to work. My brand new telescope saw first light in Bartlesville and I never could get hooked up with the one guy that had volunteered to help me learn the sky.
Within a year I had moved away and it would be another 4 years before we finally met face to face at a regional astronomy convention. Ken was on his way to becoming president of the Astronomical league and everybody wanted to chat with him. As it always was with Ken, he made the time to talk to everybody and answer their questions. We talked for some time about out mutual interest in the sun and all things related including eclipses.
It seemed like our friendship had only begun when I learned that he had been diagnosed with cancer. While some assumed the worst, I knew that Ken wouldn't let his illness get the better of him. It just wasn't his way. I knew he would attack it just as he did any other project in his life and if there was a way to beat it, he would.
He packed more into the next 11 years than anyone would have thought possible. Not only did he organize and pull off some amazing eclipse adventures but along the way, managed to fly a jet, swim with the whales and have a multitude of other envious adventures.
His first big eclipse adventure took him to Hawaii. A group from our local astronomy society had decided to make our on agenda and we ended up a mere 5 miles from Ken's group. We got lucky and the "less than 5% chance of clouds" parted just in time for totality. Ken wasn't as lucky and got skunked, but was already planning a trip to head to South America in 1994 for the next big eclipse.
More than 100 people signed on to head to the high dessert of Bolivia to watch the moon gobble up the sun in the fall of 1994.
As with all his eclipse expeditions, Ken had traveled to Bolivia a year before the eclipse so that he could see all the locations, lodgings and local conditions that the group would face. It was one of his trademarks, leaving no stone unturned as to any problems that could or may arise when everyone showed up for the real event. It was on this trip that he established many friendships with the people of Bolivia. A "slight" misunderstanding in translation led some to believe that he was the President of NASA. He had tried in vain to correct this, but to no avail. We had learned that it would be very bad form socially to correct high officials and eventually Ken gave up and played along. Everywhere his group went we were greeted and treated as if we were royalty. Only later did we learn that special arrangements had been made for not only the President of NASA, but his special staff (us) of "scientific astronomers" that worked for him. I think one of the tip-offs came after we pulled into a deserted train station in a fairly large city. Armed military personnel guarded every entrance and as we departed the station we noticed a mass of local people that had been herded down a side street waiting patiently for us to leave. Someone in our group that was fluent in Spanish asked a guard why the normally busy train station was deserted and he replied that a general had heard that the group from NASA was arriving and didn't wish for us to be disturbed. His solution was to just kick everyone out of the station! It became a running joke for the rest of the trip that if there was even the slightest problem, all we had to do was invoke the name of the president of NASA and miracles could and would be preformed.
One of the highlights of my whole week in Bolivia that November wasn't the eclipse (which was, in more ways than one, breathtaking from 12,300 feet) but a small event that happened after the eclipse.
The train that had taken us into the desert to view the eclipse was also our means of transportation to our next destination. As we slowly approached the 16,000 foot pass in the heart of the Andes mountains the train made an unscheduled stop at a very small, isolated village.
Ken, along with one of our guides, Stanley Blanco, and a few others hoped off the train and headed into town. Within seconds a group of children had surrounded Ken as he gave them all candy, pencils and writing paper. All of which were virtually unobtainable in this remote village.
It was small things like this that always bring a smile to my face when I think about Ken. His love for the people of Bolivia and their clear, crisp southern skies prompted him to found the Southern Skies Star Party.
A year after the eclipse Ken returned to Bolivia to present them with two Starmaster telescopes, purchased with funds donated by eclipse chasers and profits made from a trip highlights video tape.. During this trip he laid the groundwork for the SSSP - a week of leisurely observing,, photography and sightseeing based at the Inca Utama Hotel on the shores of Lake Titicaca, 12,300 feet above sea level. Ken liked the idea that the wonders of the southern sky were only a 6 hour flight south of Miami and he had found a spot with first class accommodations, safe food, and a staff that would bend over backwards to help.
Ken made the trip to Bolivia for the next two years to head up the SSSP. He was unable to return in 1998 when his doctors refused to let him go to altitude and he asked me to fill in for him as SSSP Director.
Last year Ken asked me to make sure that the SSSP continued
and it will as the 4th Annual 1999 SSSP will take place as scheduled in June. The SSSP2K next year is planned to be a celebration of Ken and his love for southern skies astronomy.
The astronomical community has lost one of its most brilliant stars. Those who were part of Ken's "eclipse family" will never view another eclipse without thinking of him as that first diamond ring signals the start of one of nature's most beautiful events- totality! - Vic Winter 3/20/99
Please take a look at a few of my photographic memories of Ken.
Photo Page 1. -- Photo Page 2.-- Photo Page 3. -- Photo Page 4.
Also take a look at Fred Espenak's Tribute to Ken.
Another one of Ken's dreams was to place a large aperture StarMaster telescope at the Lake Titicaca observatory in Bolivia. We have in place, a 501-(C)(3)(Charitable), Not-For-Profit corporation- StarGarden Foundation, which is dedicated to further astronomical purposes.
A special account has been set up to raise funds to purchase a 22 inch telescope and transport it to the observatory in Bolivia. The telescope will not only be available to local observers and for public star parties, but to anyone who makes a donation and wants use of a large aperture telescope in the southern skies.
If you are interested in helping make one of Ken's dreams come true please send your tax deductible donation to:
c/o Ken Willcox Fund
4907 W. 57th Terrace
Shawnee Mission, Kansas 66205 - or...