Like a fading star, Flagstaff astronomer Giclas dies at 96

2007-04-02T22:00:00Z Like a fading star, Flagstaff astronomer Giclas dies at 96By BETSEY BRUNER
Sun Staff Reporter
Arizona Daily Sun
April 02, 2007 10:00 pm  • 

Flagstaff native and renowned astronomer Henry Lee Giclas, 96, died early Monday morning at Flagstaff Medical Center.

Giclas was born Dec. 9, 1910, in Flagstaff, a town he loved his whole life.

"Well, I left it two or three times, never to come back, but I always came back," he said in an interview just last week. "I lived in various places, but I always liked the Peaks and the open country here."

Giclas was best known for his long association with Lowell Observatory, a privately owned astronomical research institution located on Mars Hill.

He was an astronomer emeritus, a valued adviser to the observatory staff and an honorary member of the observatory's advisory board.

"I think this was the only paying job he had," said William Putnam, the trustee for the observatory. "I will miss him terribly. Whenever any us wanted to know anything about the history of this place, we'd say, 'Go ask Henry.' We don't know what we're going to do now — there's no Henry to ask."

Funeral services have not yet been set.


Giclas was star-struck from an early age. Mars Hill became a focal point for his life in 1918 when he began exploring the hillside with other local boys

Giclas said he was involved with the observatory for more than 60 years in various capacities, including after retirement, when he would often visit his office there.

He began working as an astronomer at Lowell Observatory in 1942 and officially retired in 1979.

Before joining the staff full time, he worked many summers at the observatory to earn money for his studies at the University of Arizona.

His first major project for the observatory, which began in 1936, was to take both short- and long-exposure photographs of comets and minor planets to determine accurate positions for them.

He remained at the observatory during World War II, leaving occasionally for research missions.

He was stationed in Berkeley, Calif., and tested missiles in New Mexico.

"We sent them over Flagstaff, and we'd sit out and watch them," Giclas said. "We put magnesium flares on them, and they lit up the whole town. Of course, we couldn't tell them what we were doing."


Giclas' major project at Lowell was the proper motion survey, which began in 1957 and continued for 18 years.

"I compared the Pluto discovery with photographic plates made 20 years later, and we found a bunch of costars that had moved over 20 years, and I identified them," he said.

Giclas was one of the last astronomers to use photographic plates for research, said Nat White, an astronomer who came to work at Lowell in 1969 and knew Giclas well.

"He could calculate which stars were moving faster and which ones were slower," White said. "He did catalogues of what we call proper motion stars, stars that have motion across our line of sight, that are fast. That means they're close to us. Much of his observational career was devoted to that."

White said when he first came to Lowell, he used to watch Giclas work on the Perkins Telescope.

"He was an icon," said White, who is 66. "He was, I thought, an old astronomer working hard and enjoying doing what he was doing. That's what astronomers are all about; they do it even in their retirement."


Giclas and his wife Bernice, who died in 2003, were well known in the Flagstaff community. They were married 67 years and met when she came to work at the observatory.

The couple had a son, Henry Giclas Jr., who lives in Denver, grandsons in Tucson and on the West Coast, and great-grandchildren.

Giclas was recognized as the Arizona Daily Sun's Citizen of the Year in 1977, and Bernice in 1971, for her work with the American Red Cross.

"Both Henry and his late wife Bernice were contributors to this community for their entire lives," White said. "These folks who have lived here for almost a century are few and far between now. Each time, the community is losing both a resource and a memory that can only be replaced by interviews and histories."

Even after he lost his wife, Giclas remained social. As he did almost every week, he looked forward to going to the fish fry at the Elks Club Friday night.

"At 96, I don't have too many hobbies," he said last Friday."I have many friends. I've got a walker, and I get around pretty well."

Giclas was also a member of an early morning breakfast group that has met for decades at the Hotel Weatherford.

"We play a game for who pays for coffee, and then we go to our various areas to talk," Giclas said. "A certain group goes to lunch there, and then at 5 o'clock another bunch goes for cocktails at Charly's. The women come at noon for lunch, and there's always some gals come at 5 o'clock."


Giclas said growing up in Flagstaff was fun.

"We had sledding in the winter and baseball, of course, and whatever kids do in the summertime," he said. "We had movies at the Orpheum, black and white. I think it was 10 cents for a matinee on Saturday, so we used to always go there. You could get popcorn for 10 cents. We'd have popcorn and watch movies, and they had a man and a wife who played violin and piano. It was before they had walkie-talkies."

For the Fourth of July holiday, Giclas and playmates would celebrate by climbing up the backstairs at the Weatherford.

"We would play on the balcony," he remembered. "We'd get on the porch and Mrs. Weatherford would chase us off. She'd say, 'That's for our guests, not kids!'"

A bad fire in 1929 destroyed all three of the balconies at the hotel, which was built in 1897.

"The Weatherford Hotel caught on fire one noon and of course it devastated Mrs. Weatherford," Giclas said. "I remember she was lying in the hall passed out. It didn't burn much of the hotel, fortunately."

When two of the balconies were restored in 1999, Giclas cut the ribbon for the grand opening ceremony at the hotel.

Reporter Betsey Bruner can be reached at 556-2255 or by e-mail at

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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