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Robert C. Bless (1927–2015)

Published onDec 01, 2015
Robert C. Bless (1927–2015)

Reprinted with permission from Cress Funeral & Cremation Service.

Surrounded by his loving family, Robert Charles Bless died at home on November 29th, three days before his 88th birthday. He was born in Ithaca, NY on Dec. 3, 1927 to a Russian father, Arthur Aaron Bless, and a French mother, Eva Chantrell Bless. Bob spent many summers on the family farm in the South of France, where he gained a great pride and joy in his French heritage, large extended family, and mother tongue. As a child growing up in Gainesville, FL, Bob's first job was snake wrangling, earning 10 cents per foot, with an added bonus for the more venomous species. Young Robbie took daily adventures in the Florida woods and swamps, armed only with pockets full of pecans and oranges. He enjoyed spending time at the family's lake cabin, where he learned to sail and helped his father plant acres of trees to grow their timber plantation.

As a first generation immigrant, Bob's father received a PhD in physics, which inspired Bob to pursue an extensive educational route in astrophysics. Bob excelled in academics, graduating high school at the age of 16 and the University of Florida (B.Sc.) at 19. His path to graduate school was interrupted by a diagnosis of tuberculosis that forced him into a Florida sanitorium for one year. During this time, Bob made the most of what he described as the most dismal part of life by advocating for patient rights, initiating an inter-sanitorium newsletter, and gaining skills and experience in community organization and leadership - qualities that would later inform his leadership in academe. After being one of the first successfully treated tuberculosis patients in the US, Bob went on to earn a M.Sc. from Cornell University, and received his PhD degree in Astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1958.

That same year, Bob joined the staff of the Astronomy Department of the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison. It was there that Bob met Diane McQueen. Despite Bob's Dodge Dart and what has been described as the worst first date in either of their memories, Bob and Diane married in 1969 in a small ceremony on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state and continued to cultivate a happy and loving marriage of 45 years. Bob's contributions to UW and to the field of astronomy were truly impressive and influential. He was a dedicated and extremely effective teacher at all levels of university education, as shown by very high student evaluation ratings from freshmen to graduate students. In addition to astronomy courses, for many years Bob co-taught a popular course on the history of astronomy and cosmology. He authored a well-received undergraduate textbook, Discovering the Cosmos, that emphasized the contributions of astronomy to the history of Western thinking as well as its fascinating modern factual discoveries. In his book, Bob cautioned his readers: "in reading this book you will discover that astronomy is enjoyably mind expanding and even exciting. This is not, however, 'astronomy without tears'."

His dedication to astronomy education extended far beyond the academic community and helped set a pattern of outreach to the general public now widely followed by NASA and other institutions. The clearest manifestation of that dedication was his founding, in 1990, of UW Space Place.

His colleagues considered him to be not only smart, as most university staff are, but, perhaps more importantly, wise as well, meaning that he could digest diverse material, determine its broader implications, and suggest and execute on effective courses of action as necessary. He served as Chair of the Astronomy department for several years, but his leadership role extended until his retirement and even beyond as his advice continued to be sought by subsequent Chairs. Perhaps his largest contribution to the department was his counsel and friendship to all of its members, from technicians to senior academics, sometimes acting as mentor or peacemaker and moderator. He was especially important in orchestrating the relocation of the department to new quarters when Sterling Hall was extensively renovated, and in overseeing the renovations to Washburn Observatory that were completed in 2009.

Bob was an innovative and accomplished scientist, specializing in both instrumental design and calibration measurements - an absolutely vital determinant of the data's utility in which instrumental readings are converted to physically meaningful results. Early in his career he worked on the UW's Wisconsin Experiment Package (WEP), which was the primary payload in NASA's Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO-2), the first true space observatory. Launched in 1968 and operating until 1973, OAO-2 measured the properties of light from celestial objects from above the earth's obscuring atmosphere. Bob was a principal team member in all aspects of WEP (and many of OAO-2), including design, fabrication, testing, operations, and scientific research.

Bob went on as designer and Principal Investigator of the High Speed Photometer (HSP), one of the original instruments chosen to be launched in 1990 with the famous Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the most successful telescope in history. (WEP, OAO-2, and HSP are on public display at UW Space Place.) Bob's worldwide reputation was illustrated by his being chosen as Chair of the Board of Directors of the Gemini Observatory, an international consortium operating two very large ground-based telescopes in Chile and Hawaii. This Board had the heavy responsibility of selecting the instruments aboard the telescopes and thereby the nature of their scientific impacts. Bob also served on several important committees within NASA, some requiring his moving to Washington for extensive periods of time. He authored numerous scientific papers and review articles in prestigious journals and books. Bob retired from the University as Professor Emeritus on Bastille Day in 1994 at the age of 67.

Bob's expertise and dedication to astronomy and instrumentation took backseat only to his role as husband and father. He relished family dinners and international travel where he never missed an opportunity to regale family and friends as the resident historian.

In 1992, at the age of 64, Bob embraced fatherhood when he and Diane became the guardians for Diane's nieces and nephew. Throwing footballs, offering cooking lessons, and tutorship in nearly any subject, Bob had much to share with his newfound children. A passionate classical music enthusiast, Bob also was a wine connoisseur and everybody at Barriques knew his name.

Bob is survived by his wife, Diane; daughters Jacqueline (Bartlett) of Mazomanie; and Andrea (Caleb) of Middleton; son Brandon (Stephanie) of Craftsbury Common, Vermont; grandchildren Teolyn, Finch, Luca and Wilder; sister, Marguerite McInnis and nephews (Alexander and Lauchlin McInnis) and niece (Marguerite McInnis) of Florida, and other relatives and friends. He was preceded in death by his parents Eva Chantrell Bless and Arthur Aaron Bless.

The family would like to thank Agrace Hospice and Drs. Thomas Hyzer and Wayne Grogan and their respective staffs for the care provided to Bob.

There will be a Celebration of Bob's life held in early summer when all of his family can join his friends in sharing memories.

"I hope that you will have found the experience worth the effort, and as at the end of a long journey to unfamiliar places, that you will be a somewhat different person for it." — Robert Charles Bless

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