Fitch studied pulsating stars of all kinds, especially RR Lyrae stars. He was also involved in the construction of one of the first telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory.
Walter Stewart Fitch of Oracle, Arizona, died on Sunday, June 2, 2013 following a debilitating fight with complications as a result of a fall in early March. He was 87.
Fitch was born March 6, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Dr. Franklin Ransom Fitch and Anne Elizabeth Schenck Fitch. He served in the Navy in the last year of World War II in the Pacific theater. He then attended the University of Chicago where he met his wife, Nancy Joy Babcock of Riverside, California. They were married at Price, Utah, in 1947 where he was working the summer as an electrician in the coal mines. He obtained a Ph.D. in astronomy in 1955 under the mentorship of William W. Morgan at the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin and Bengt Strömgren of the University of Copenhagen.
While still working on his degree, Fitch was hired to the faculty of the Astronomy Department, University of Arizona, Tucson, by Edwin F. Carpenter, long term director of the Steward Observatory. There he used his naval training in electronics to mechanize the 36-inch reflecting telescope. He was actively involved in the construction of new housing for the original reflecting telescope at Kitt Peak in 1962.
Fitch’s academic work centered on pulsating stars and binary stars. He published over three dozen papers involving multiple periodic variables such as δ Scuti, RR Lyrae, and pulsating white dwarf stars.
Nearing retirement, he and Nancy became members of the Tucson Sailing Club, frequently traveling to Rocky Point to sail in the Gulf of California. Fitch retired from the University of Arizona in 1986. After his wife convinced him that one would not die of “critter” death by sleeping on the ground, he became an avid backpacker and hiker. One favorite hike was up Mt. Baldy, in the Santa Rita Mountains. This peak became known to the family as “Wally’s peak,” as few other family members could surmount it.
Fitch is remembered for his odd mixture of gentleness and gruffness best illustrated by a ditty written by the staff of the National Observatory of Mexico in Baja California: “Si oyes en la noche un grito … No te espantes es solo el Sr. Doctor Walter Fitch (If you hear a scream at night … don’t be scared, it’s just Dr. Walter Fitch).”
Fitch made meticulous lists, including a detailed record of precipitation and temperatures, as well as corresponding bird and animal sightings along the National Forest boundary in Oracle for the last 26 years of his life. Those lists are to be donated to appropriate organizations.
Fitch is survived by his wife of 65 years, Nancy; four children and their spouses, Selena Billington and Jim Dewey; Tod and Leslie Fitch; Alanah Fitch and Al Benson; Sandra and Gene Houghton; and two grandchildren, Erika and Adam Benson.
Adapted and reproduced with permission of The Arizona Daily Star.
See also Fitch’s AstroGen entry.