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John Leroy Climenhaga (1916–2008)

Published onJan 01, 2009
John Leroy Climenhaga (1916–2008)

John Leroy Climenhaga was born on 7 November 1916 on a farm some 10 km from Delisle, a small town on the Canadian prairies, located about 50 km south-west of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and died at his home in Victoria, British Columbia, on 27 May 2008. His parents, Reuben and Elizabeth (nee Bert) Climenhaga, were farming folk, and he carried their honest and open attitude to the world throughout his life. John was the seventh born, and last to die, of their ten children. His father also served as an ordained minister of the Brethren in Christ.

In early adulthood, John worked on his father's farm, but then attended the University of Saskatchewan, obtaining a B.A. with Honors in Mathematics and Physics and an M.A. in Physics, in 1945 and 1949 respectively. Between these events he worked as a Physics Instructor at Regina College from 1946 to 1948.

In 1949 Climenhaga joined the faculty of Victoria College, as one of only two physicists in a small institution that was then part of the University of British Columbia. He remained in Victoria for the rest of his career, playing a major role in the College's growth into a full-fledged university, complete with thriving graduate programs in physics and astronomy as well as in many other fields. He served as Head of the Physics Department during the 1960s, a period which saw the College become the University of Victoria, with a full undergraduate program in Physics, and campaigned successfully for the establishment of a program in Astronomy, which began in 1965. From 1969 until 1972 he held the position of Dean of Arts and Science, and championed the university's participation in the Tri-University Meson Facility, whose high-current medium-energy beam was ideal for the production and study of mesons and their physics. That period was a turbulent one in the university's history, but John's integrity and his balanced and fair-minded approach to conflicts were of immeasurable importance in steering the young institution through it.

John's interest in astronomy was kindled by contacts with staff of the nearby Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, notably Andrew McKellar, who oversaw much of the research John carried out for his doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan, where he had first obtained a second M.A., this time in astronomy. His Ph.D. was completed in 1960, guided by McKellar and by Leo Goldberg, who first drew John's attention to the significance of carbon-isotope ratios in the cool carbon stars. His thesis was a major contribution to the study of those ratios.

After his term as dean, John took a well-earned sabbatical year, spending about four months in each of Tokyo, Cape Town, and Torun, Poland. In the latter place he began a collaboration with the late Jan Smolinski, which continued for nearly twenty years, and led to some twenty papers, initially on carbon stars, but mostly on the properties and erratic behavior of very luminous stars (hypergiants) of types F, G and K.

John retired at the age of 65 in 1982, but continued teaching undergraduate courses for a dozen years thereafter. On his retirement the university renamed its observatory in his honor, and established a scholarship in his name, which has helped to support the studies of numerous students who went on to distinguished careers.

John served as treasurer of the Canadian Astronomical Society from 1983 to 1989 and gave numerous popular talks in the community. On his seventieth birthday the IAU named asteroid (3034) "Climenhaga" in his honor and in 1996 the University of Victoria awarded him an honorary D.Sc. His interest in the work of the University continued for the rest of his life, and he would attend seminars, or visit and chat with colleagues in their offices, but never interrupt their work for long, thus ensuring that he never outstayed his welcome, until he became confined to a wheelchair and too frail to make the trip. Even after that, despite failing eyesight that made reading difficult, his mind remained clear and interested in new discoveries that might be reported to him by visiting colleagues.

On 29 September 1943 John married Margaret Grace Garratt, who remained with him until her death on 17 August 2001. They had two children, Joan and David, who survive him, along with their spouses and David's two daughters, to whom John was a proud and loving grandfather. Their home was always a warm, welcoming, and hospitable one to the younger colleagues who joined the Department of Physics (now Physics and Astronomy) during John's tenure as Head and Dean. On 26 July 2003, John was married again, to Ila Buffam, whose gentle care softened his last years, and who survives him.

I am indebted to Harry Dosso, a colleague for many years to both John and myself, for providing some of the above details, particularly those of John's early life.

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