Part 6 - The Dark Ages (1983 - 1991)
by Bob Stephens

This is the sixth in a series of articles about the roots of the Riverside Astronomical Society. Other chapters can be found on our web site at: http://www.rivastro.org/ras-history.php. I have relied upon research into old bulletins, interviews with former RAS members, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs, magazine articles, and personal recollection. This chapter is “The Dark Ages” not because it was a bad time for the club (although some negative things did happen), but rather because there is surprisingly very little information available in the club’s historical documents. I have very few photographs and do not even have a complete set of bulletins; almost an entire year is missing. Also, I was not very active in the years of the late 1980’s and was not present for some of the events.

Cliff Holmes with Walter Scott Houston
at the 1983 RTMC

Vendors started selling equipment at the 1984 RTMC. Notice the missing observatory.

Holmes Two

Cliff Holmes
at the 1986 RTMC

This decade can be divided by administration. Cliff Holmes was President from 1983 to 1986, Tom Fangrow was President in 1987 and again in 1989, and Susanne Mau and Dennis Fandrich were President from late 1989 to 1992. (and the Mesozoic Era can be further divided into the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods. When we last visited our heroes and heroines, Mike Sugarman was President. He embarked on a plan to incorporate the club. However, before this was completed, Mike accepted a job with Celestron and because of his perceived conflict, resigned as President. Since nobody wanted to take the job, Cliff agreed once again to become President, a post he held for the next 3-½ years.

Cliff’s focus, and that of the club had been changing over the years. He was still interested in public outreach, but mostly showing the stars to college students from Riverside Community College at our local Gavalian Hills star parties. With the exception of the Comet Halley star parties; these were the only outreach events that were held for almost 10 years. The RAS now only had a monthly meeting, usually a local star party, and spent most of the year preparing for the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference (RTMC). However, the RAS put up Astronomy Day displays at the Tyler Mall (Galleria) and Riverside Plaza. These Astronomy Day displays were very successful, but did not happen every year as one or the other shopping mall demanded excessive insurance policies from the club.

Most of the fall, winter and spring star parties were held at the Gavalian Hills site. During the summer, the club sometimes went to Camp Oakes or the Angeleus Oakes Heliport. The highlight of 1984 was the October Star Party at Stony Ridge Observatory behind Mt. Wilson. It was a cloudy and stormy day. Most RAS members attempting the trip gave up before ascending into the mountains. That just left six RAS members (including yours truly) to have the use of the 30-inch, F/5 telescope for the night, with clouds covering the LA Basin and lapping at their heals. We enjoyed the view of the Ring Nebula’s central star and many other great sights until dawn. In 1986, the RAS went to Joshua Tree for Star Parties in May and November.

David Shipman brought a 29-inch telescope weighing
1,000 lbs. to the 1983 RTMC

Bob Cox delivers his hour long Show & Tell at the 1983 RTMC

For the RAS, 1985 was the lead up to the return of Halley’s Comet. This event had been anticipated for several years, even though it was not a particularly good apparition. The comet first became visible in August 1985, and the public quickly became enchanted with the concept. In the last three months of the year, several Star Parties were held at the Gavalian Hills site and at schools. Hundreds of people attended these Star Parties.

Comet Halley taken by
Bob Stephens in March 1986

1986 was truly the year of Halley’s Comet, and most activities of the RAS for the first half of the year centered on the famous object. Four of the first six talks had Halley’s Comet as a subject. There were Comet Star Parties galore – 16 of them scheduled from January to April including 10 straight nights at a site in the Canyon Crest area. However, many of these Star Parties were clouded out. Cliff was also the lecturer on some Caribbean cruises.

For most of this time, the club did not have a Program Chairman, with Cliff acting in the unofficial capacity. Cliff got Ed Krupp of Griffith Observatory and Rev. Ron Royer in 1983 and Ed Krupp again in 1985. However, there were generally no other notable speakers for several years. During these years Cliff also scheduled, tours of Mt. Wilson and the Big Bear Solar Observatory.

The 1983 RTMC was bigger than ever with Bob Cox and Walter Scott Houston attending. Over 1,000 people attend. The conference was notable for the many larger telescopes gathered in the center of the field. The most impressive telescope was a 1,000 lbs., 29-inch monster brought by a retired wrestler. This was also the year that Bob Cox of Sky & Telescopes was asked to give a 5-minute show and tell on his pocket telescope – a presentation that went on for an hour.

The 1984 RTMC was bigger than every with almost 1,200 people attended and started swarming the commercial vendors who started setting up on the edge of the Telescope Field selling second hand or blemished telescope parts. The 1985 RTMC was bigger yet with over 1,500 people attending. This conference is best remembered for Don Machholz discovering Comet Machholz - 1985e on Monday morning.

Don Macholz after discovering a comet
at the 1985 RTMC

A New Crew

In 1987, the club officers almost completely changed with Tom Fangrow becoming the President and Malcolm Ridley the Vice President. Cliff Holmes switched over to be the Chief Observer as well as retaining the RTMC Directorship.

The new officers along with a couple others were very active in pursuing deep sky observing Star Parties in the desert. These activities lasted a couple of years, but no more than a few members journeyed to these Star Parties. Local Star parties were held at the Gavalian Hills site.

Tom King at the 1985 RTMC

The membership rolls had languished in the mid 80’s, dropping to around 50 by 1987. A membership push was made, with the membership growing to almost 100 by 1990, possibly spurred by the enthusiasm of the group, the public interest in Halley’s Comet, and growth in the area.

During 1987, the RAS once again discussed the possibility of purchasing some property located in the town of Joshua Tree. Discussions lasted a few months at which time the property was no longer available.

Under Cliff Holmes’ direction, the 1987 RTMC had its most successful year ever attracting more than 2,300 people. That level of attendance was really more than the camp facilities could handle, with many of the attendees coming to see Clyde Tombaugh, David Levy and Janet Matti.

In 1988 Tom Fangrow had the membership directly elect the Board of Directors, which then appointed the officers. This set up a clash of personalities within a short time. However, 1988 was seemingly a one-man show with Randall Wilcox filling the posts of Chairman of the Board, President and Bulletin Editor as well as playing peacekeeper between feuding officers.

In 1988, the RAS also went to great Star Parties at Onyx Summit and Ford Observatory as well as a tour of Goldstone. They also had a very successful Astronomy Day at the Riverside Plaza in April. There was some talk of doing outreach programs at schools, but nothing came of it. There was again a discussion of purchasing a club observing site or leasing the observatory at Camp Oakes. Neither plan went far.

Cliff Holmes arranged a special Star Party/Workshop at Camp Oakes in July and a very special Morrison Lecture featuring Walter Scott Houston of Sky & Telescope in February. This was a very special meeting that celebrated the 30th Anniversary of the club and honored many contributors of the past including a touching moment with Harold Kaiser, the founder of the Riverside Astronomical Society. Mike Sugarman brought many special prizes from Celestron.

Cliff Holmes was extra busy putting on the 20th RTMC in 1988, honoring all the special people from prior years. This conference was also notable for the many large telescopes including the 31-inch owned by the Los Angeles Astronomical Society. This was also the second RTMC to have snow. This conference was also important for some behind the scenes infighting. Cliff Holmes was greatly upset when Tom Fangrow attempted to use newly elected Board of Directors to control Cliff’s activities at the RTMC. Cliff Holmes was the appointed Director of the RTMC and Tom felt that all important decisions should get the blessing of the Board of Directors before being implemented. Having started and nurtured the conference for 20 years, Cliff felt that his authority was being impinged. He threatened to quit after the conference was over. Eventually Cliff and Tom declared a truce, one that would last for only a year.

Randall Wilcox retired as President and Bulletin Editor at the end of 1988 to start a new job as a teacher. Tom Fangrow again became President leading to his final clash with Cliff Holmes.

The 1989 RTMC had an impressive 1,762 amateur astronomers attend. They heard Debbie Byrd, the originator and producer of "StarDate," gave the Keynote Address and saw David Levy receive the Clifford W. Holmes Award. However, it was not a happy time for Cliff because Tom Fangrow again attempted to excerpt control over the conference activities. This lead to a class of wills because Tom did not have unanimous backing from the Board of Directors and did not have the support of the volunteers who actually ran the RTMC.

Cliff left the conference with the conviction that he never again would allow himself to be put in this position. Within a month, Cliff was meeting with an attorney to arrange to have the RTMC incorporated as its own separate entity. Then, per the club Bylaws, Cliff called for a special election of the members to decide if the conference would be spun off into a separate corporation.

That vote was held in August 1989. Cliff and others presented arguments that the RTMC had grown too big and complicated for a single club to run. The RAS had gotten help from the San Bernardino Valley Amateur Astronomers in the past, but that help had dwindled away. Cliff said that in order for the conference to reach its potential, the RAS had to solicit help and experts from around the west coast. Cliff also argued that the biggest focus of the RAS had become putting on the RTMC, which in effect, stagnated the potential of the club. He said that the RAS would continue to benefit financially and offered a special guaranteed percentage of the profits for the first three years. Cliff also pointed out that if the RAS did not vote to separate the RTMC, he would resign and start his own conference. Tom and others argued that the RTMC was property of the RAS and that the club should not part with such a valuable asset. In the end, the club voted to spin off the RTMC.In the end, this was the wisest thing to do at a number of levels. Cliff Holmes was a nationally known and celebrated amateur astronomer. He had all of the contacts needed to put on the conference, including attracting the top speakers and getting publicity in the national astronomy magazines. By far, the core of volunteers supported Cliff and would have left to support his new conference. Unfortunately, this ugly situation resulted in the resignation of several of the RAS officers including Tom Fangrow and his wife who was acting as the Treasurer at the time. In the end, Cliff’s vision of the future of the conference came to be with many prominent amateur and professional astronomers coming to assist in organizing the conference and the RAS still receiving a fairly significant source of revenue from it.

A New Era

In September 1989, the club elected several new directors and officers with Susanne (Mau) Borzone becoming President and Randall Wilcox becoming Chairman of the Board. Cheryl (Hanscom) Wilcox took over the duties of publishing the bulletin giving it a new look that exists to this day.

Bob Stephens (left) and Randall Wilcox (right) observing the
Total Solar Eclipse in Cabo San Lucas, July 11, 1991

Through the remainder of 1989 and 1990, this group was very energetic in planning activities for the club. Susanne instituted board planning meetings and the annual calendar. Showing the level of interest, 20 members show up to planning meeting to discuss the future where it was agreed to purchase a 17-inch Coulter Dobsonian for use at star parties.

Cliff arranged to have Ed Krupp and David Levy come and speak to the club. Don Davis came and spoke about his space art and Steve McArthur of SpectraSource came and spoke about a new thing called a CCD Camera that they were developing for the amateur market. Once again, the club discussed buying a new observing site. Camp Oakes was used for star parties in the summer.

During 1990, a new star party site was picked at Jack Rabbit Trail. The RAS held a Messier Marathon with the Pomona Valley Amateur Astronomers and again had Astronomy Day at the Riverside Plaza.

Later in 1990, Randall Wilcox hosted a telescope workshop before several meetings covering many topics about getting started using telescopes. The first RTMC held as a separate organization was a big success with 40 RAS members helping out. In July, the club took a bus trip to Mt. Palomar where they toured the 200-inch telescope. In August, the RAS had a Starbeque with Pomona club in August for Perseid Meteor shower.

In 1991, Susanne Mau retired as President and Dennis Fandrich took over. Steve Meyering became Vice President in June.

The focus of the club for 1991 was the Total Solar Eclipse in Mexico and Hawaii in July 1991. Three talks were held about the solar eclipse in the first half of the year. Many RAS members went and several meetings were devoted to coverage for the remainder of the year.

July 1991 Total Solar Eclipse taken by Bob Stephens

Late in 1991, Bill Seavey took over as Star Party Chairman. He started doing some school outreach programs. Hundreds of students continued to come to the Star Parties at Jack Rabbit Trail.

The RAS had an April trip to Rueben Fleet Space Theater. The RAS also once again held Astronomy Day at Riverside Plaza. In June, we had workshop on viewing Jupiter after the meeting. Another Member Education program was started in midyear and went on for a couple of years. This program was a bit overcomplicated with tests and levels of experience.

The RAS had an overnight campout at to Joshua Tree in July. Only six members came and met students, but it was a start. The club went to Camp Oakes in September and Mount Palomar in October, as well as the usual Angelus Oakes Star Parties.

Despite this flurry of activities, the membership renewals were down. This was perhaps caused by the recession, lingering resentment over the RTMC, increased dues, or all of the above. In our next episode, you shall see how the club dealt with this issue.

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