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Ervin Joseph Prouse (1905–1998)

Published onJan 01, 2002
Ervin Joseph Prouse (1905–1998)

Ervin J. Prouse, Professor Emeritus, The University of Texas at Austin, died on 16 June 1998 in Amarillo, Texas. He was ninety-two years old.

Born in Anthony, Kansas, on 20 July 1905, Prouse became enamored by the night sky visible from that flat, dark countryside. His future commitment to the study of astronomy was sealed by his sight of Halley’s Comet in 1910. He saved pennies from trapping muskrat in the winter and selling ears of corn in Anthony in the summer to purchase science and history books. Prouse graduated as valedictorian of his class at Anthony High School, receiving a scholarship to attend the University of Wichita. Two years later he transferred to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he received his BA in 1927 and MA in 1933.

Prouse taught at Washburn College, Topeka, Kansas for seven years, between 1929 and 1937, with an intervening year for graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) in 1933–1934. He continued his graduate work in 1937, and earned a PhD in Astronomy from UCB in 1939. Joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) in 1939, Prouse taught undergraduate and graduate courses in astronomy, mathematics, and physics there from that year until 1972. His research interests were celestial mechanics and the orbits of stars, planets, and satellites.

During World War II, Prouse taught celestial navigation, practical astronomy and general astronomy to Navy cadets. Later, driving from Austin to Houston every Tuesday from 1962 through 1966, he taught the same subjects to three classes of astronauts, the future crews for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights. NASA was extremely pleased with his work with the astronauts.

In a lifetime of dedication to the study of astronomical science, Ervin Prouse was also devoted to teaching and to his students, many of whom continued to maintain contact with him after his retirement. He was so effective as a teacher that one of the UTA Engineering departments insisted on supplementing his salary for teaching an especially needed mathematics course for their majors (a very unusual movement of money across colleges).

Prouse arrived in Austin in 1939, the same year that the McDonald Observatory was dedicated and formally opened on Mt. Locke at Fort Davis, Texas. The observatory was the result of a cooperative agreement between UTA and the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago. After one of Prouse’s month-long stays at McDonald Observatory, in February 1949, he returned to the Austin campus with his recommendations for improvements at the Observatory. At the time, McDonald Observatory had over 10,000 visitors per year, in spite of its remote location in West Texas. Sir Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, had been a guest at McDonald during that month. Yet on his return to the Austin campus, Professor Prouse lamented in his notes:

It seems that the science of astronomy must be sold to The University of Texas. The administration is definitely not interested in this endeavor. When it was suggested that members of the McDonald Observatory participate in some small measure at seminars at the University, President T. S. Painter replied that such seminars required an audience.

After that experience, Professor Prouse devoted a great effort throughout his career to “selling” astronomy and, later, the space program. He knew that Texas needed a place to look at the stars scientifically. He was tireless in his devotion to public outreach, through public speaking engagements, viewing hours at observatories, and working with students of all ages. He took part in the Texas Academy of Science visiting scientist program in middle and senior high schools. He continued to accept speaking engagements after he and his wife, whom he married in 1927, moved to a retirement home in Amarillo in 1991.

A member of Sigma Xi honorary science fraternity, Sigma Pi Sigma physics honorary society, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, Prouse was a fifty-year member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Fellow), and the American Association of University Professors. He held membership in the American Mathematical Association and was a Fellow in the Texas Academy of Science.

Prouse retired in the Texas Panhandle to be close to the flat land and the open sky that he loved. As a boy, living on a wheat farm in Kansas, he acquired and never lost his love for the wide-open spaces. He farmed wheat land in the summers from 1927 until 1969.

His friends and colleagues remember Prouse as quiet, self-effacing, kind, and considerate, and for his utmost honesty and integrity. He was active for over fifty years in University Methodist Church in Austin and was a long-time member of Kiwanis Clubs in Austin and Amarillo. Professor Prouse is survived by three children, five grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren. His wife Thelma followed him in death in 2000 at age ninety-four.

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