LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- Patricia "Patsy" Edson Tombaugh, community leader, educator, artist, and enthusiastic supporter of her astronomy pioneer husband Clyde, discoverer of the planet Pluto, died Thursday at the Arbors of Del Rey in Las Cruces. She was 99.
"Mother was born Nov. 7, 1912, and hoped to enjoy celebrating her 100th birthday with New Mexico's Centennial this year, but her body just gave out," said her daughter Annette Tombaugh Sitze of Las Cruces.
She was in Florida for the 2006 launch of the New Horizons Pluto Probe, which carried Clyde's ashes, and expressed hopes to live to see it reach Pluto in 2015.
She met Clyde Tombaugh shortly after his 1930 discovery of Pluto in Flagstaff, when he entered Kansas University as a freshman in 1932, and stayed at her mother's rooming house. They were married in 1934 and had two children, Annette and Alden, both Las Cruces residents.
Known for her sense of humor, she once joked that "Pluto was his first love" and she had to compete with several planets, comets and assorted other heavenly bodies to attract his attention.
But it was clear, through their six-decade marriage, that she was the love of his life, and it was her connections that steered the course of his life after his early astronomical coup.
"My uncle, James Edson, my mother's brother, introduced them and it was my uncle, who also brought Werner von Braun here, who was responsible for bringing them to Las Cruces in 1946," Sitze said.
As Chief of Optical Measurements Section at White Sands Proving Ground, Tombaugh was responsible for the tracking telescopes used to photograph rockets and missiles during test flights, and his wife quickly established herself as a community leader here.
She was a founder of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces, one of the area's first art associations, and the Community Concerts Association and was active in the University Women's Association, the Women's Improvement Association and the Tombaugh Scholars Program Foundation at NMSU.
She also taught for many years at regional schools, including Old South Ward, Valley View and Connelly elementary schools.
"I think she'll be remembered as a vibrant person very interested in the arts and education. We were very fortunate to have had them as our parents. We could always believe in the truth of what they said. They developed a home that was reliable and cozy," said her son Alden Tombaugh.
She worked closely with Clyde on lecture tours throughout the world until his death in 1997 in their Mesilla Park home. She was a frequent guest at some regional institutions that bear the family name, including Clyde Tombaugh Elementary School, NMSU's Clyde W. Tombaugh Campus Observatory and Tombaugh IMAX Dome Theatre at the New Mexico Museum of Space History in Alamogordo.
She attracted new friends and fans after her 2010 appearance on "The Pluto Files" on PBS's NOVA series, focusing on the conflict over the 2006, still-controversial meeting of the International Astronomical Union, when a vote involving 424 astronomers defined the term "planet" for the first time, a definition which excluded Pluto and added it as a member of the new "dwarf planet" category.
The NOVA crew came to Las Cruces 2009 to film locations that included Alden Tombaugh's home and the Tombaugh Art Gallery, which houses a stained glass window depicting Clyde's life, at the Unitarian Universalist Church, which the Tombaughs helped found in 1954.
"She spoke lucidly and articulately about their life together. This was a treasure of storytelling. That has got to be the friendliest family I have ever spent time with in my life. I learned how friendly people can be, even in times of intellectual conflict," said NOVA host Neil Tyson. Tyson had been one of the ringleaders in the effort to demote Pluto, but changed his mind after meeting Patricia and her family.
In addition to her son and daughter, she leaves five grandchildren, nine great-granchildren and one great-great grandchild.
Services will be at 2 p.m. Feb. 12 at Unitarian Universalist Church of Las Cruces, 2000 S. Solano Drive. Memorial contributions be made to the Las Cruces Symphony Association, Mesilla Valley Hospice or Unitarian Universalist Church.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at (575) 541-5450.