Oregon's famed telescope builder dies of cancer
Steve Swayze of Happy Valley recently left behind a legacy of accomplishments for Oregon astronomers as a famed telescope builder.
Swayze, 62, died in November after an ongoing battle with cancer. His telescope at Clackamas Community College's Environmental Learning Center Haggart Observatory in Oregon City remains the second largest in the state, with the University of Oregon's Pine Mountain Observatory near Bend being the biggest.
Swayze was known as one of the few people worldwide capable of grinding optical mirrors to build large telescopes. In his early 30s, he became excited about optical devices after looking at the night sky through high-quality telescopes at a "star party" he visited.
Swayze's telescope creations began with mirrors 6 inches in diameter, then 10-inch and ultimately 40-inch creations, some of the biggest ever fabricated outside of government-funded agencies such as NASA. His work included the creation of a beautiful "furniture like" telescope at CCC.
"We fabricated a beautiful tower that overlooks our manmade nature center to house this incredible instrument," said Jerry Herrmann, founding director of CCC's Environmental Learning Center.
Haggart Observatory's original telescope was damaged and not available for use when Herrmann met Swayze.
Herrmann said that Swayze told him, "I'll make an even better scope for that facility."
More than a dozen volunteers worked countless hours to make sure Haggart Observatory was open at least half the year on Friday and Saturday nights, reaching thousands of families and their children.
Carl Zambuto, of Northern Washington, came to know Swayze and was amazed at the cooperation they had as two of the five professional mirror grinders and telescope makers in America.
"Even though Steve and I were competitors, the ability to fabricate special optics was a gift from God to both of us and we always wanted to help make each other better," Zambuto said.
Bruce Swayze, long-term resident of Clackamas County, expressed the respect he had for his younger brother and willingness to take on any challenge, including creating the right instrument for Haggart Observatory.
"If I struggled to build an 8-inch (mirror), Steve would go to a 16-inch. If I tried to do something bigger, Steve was determined to make the best optics to serve people in looking at the creation. No one in America ever created a 40-inch or bigger mirror, as Steve Swayze did," Bruce Swayze said.
Ken Cameron, a retired geologist and instructor, ran the observatory with Herrmann for many years and their cadre of nearly a dozen volunteers.
"Swayze not only built a beautiful instrument made to look like the finest piano verniers, but made this piece of art, with our help, able to track objects and give young and old a chance to see the amazing night sky, even from the observatory's urban location in Oregon City," Cameron said. "We hope to see the observatory back in service and vital like it was when we and our volunteer corps sought to educate and bring awe to everyone we could."
Both CCC and the University of Oregon have closed their observatories to the public since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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