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Thomas J. Ogburn, III (1914–1995)

Published onDec 01, 2001
Thomas J. Ogburn, III (1914–1995)

Thomas J. Ogburn III was born in Richmond, Virginia and remained a resident of that city for his entire life. Although encouraged by his father's interest in astronomy, Ogburn first studied engineering for two years at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute extension in Richmond. He then entered Yale University where he first majored in physics and minored in mathematics. However, through his evident love of astronomy, Ogburn persuaded the Yale faculty to allow him to take astronomy classes taught at that time only at the graduate level. Ogburn was the first undergraduate at Yale to study astronomy, earning a BA in astronomy in 1937.

Prior to completing his studies at Yale, Ogburn began a 38-year civil engineering career with the Virginia Department of Highways, retiring with the title Associate State Bridge Engineer in 1974. After retirement he continued to practice engineering as a consultant. He was a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineers, a registered professional engineer, and a member of the National Society of Professional Engineers, holding offices at the local and state level in that society.

Ogburn maintained a nearly continuous secondary career teaching evening classes, including astronomy, mathematics and engineering, from 1939 until 1977. He served as an instructor at the University of Virginia extension, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Richmond, the Virginia Mechanics Institute, and Randolph-Macon College.

Ogburn joined the Richmond Astronomical Society (RichAS) shortly after it was founded in 1949, and remained an active member until diminished health prevented his participation. In the 1950s, RichAS member Beaufort Ragland donated some land near Richmond to the society. In 1963 the RichAS dedicated its Ragland observatory on this land where it remains in service today. Ogburn was heavily involved in the design and construction of the observatory that featured a unique split roll-off roof and housed a 7-inch refractor. He was the first director of the observatory and continued in that role for many years. In addition to observatory director, Ogburn also served the RichAS as an officer and director for many years. The entire Ogburn family participated in many RichAS activities including expeditions to view total solar eclipses in 1963 (Maine) and 1970 (Newport News, Virginia). Ogburn joined the American Astronomical Society in 1972.

An event that occurred following his death revealed the impish side of Ogburn's sense of humor as well as that of other RichAS members. Repairs to the observatory required the exposure of a long-hidden concrete cylinder wall, below the floor level, on which Ogburn and other RichAS members had placed their initials along with the following message: "We do good work, don't we?"

Ogburn participated in many other activities that allowed him to apply his interests and skills in astronomy and related subjects such as optics and photography. His astronomical interests included improved methods for telescope polar axis alignment and measurements of the speed of light. With Dr. Samuel J. Goldstein Jr. of the University of Virginia, Ogburn co-authored a paper, entitled "On the Velocity of Light Three Centuries Ago," (AJ, 78:122-125). Known in the Richmond area for his knowledge of mathematics and science, Ogburn was frequently called upon to assist with local educational activities and to moderate public events involving these topics. He was a member of the Virginia Academy of Science. He also served as the treasurer of the Middle East Region of the Astronomical League.

In summary, Ogburn's interests and activities encompassed a broad range of mathematics, science, and engineering subjects in addition to astronomy. He enjoyed working alone, deriving equations, analyzing data, and tinkering with instruments, but also spent many hours sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm through his participation in organizations, instruction in the classroom, and support of public education activities. During World War II (1943-1946), Ogburn served in the US Navy as a radio-radar navigation officer, applying radar to air navigation and conducting ground controlled landing approaches. He was discharged from the Naval Reserve in 1954 with the rank of lieutenant.

Ogburn married Dorothy E. Gibson in 1941. Their three children all pursued careers related to science or engineering. Ogburn was known for his keen sense of humor and fair play. He shared his family's love of music by playing the harmonica. In his early life he played both volleyball and baseball, and in his later years he enthusiastically took up international folk dancing. Ogburn is survived by his son, Thomas P. Ogburn of Richmond, Virginia, and two daughters, Marilyn E. Ogburn of Williamsburg, Virginia, and Joyce L. Ogburn of Seattle, Washington. He is also survived by one sister, Virginia O. Butrin, of North Manchester, Indiana. Ogburn passed away on 23 October 1995. His wife Dorothy passed away on 27 July 2001.

Photograph courtesy of Marilyn E. Ogburn


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