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Obituary: LEO J. SCANLON

Amateur astronomer, built first aluminum-domed observatory

Monday, November 29, 1999

By the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Leo J. Scanlon, a founder of the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh and builder of the world's first aluminum-domed observatory, died Saturday in the Fosnight Nursing Home in Richland of cancer. He was 96.

Although a registered plumber by vocation, Mr. Scanlon's hobby was astronomy, which brought him in contact with Albert Einstein and the academic community. Mr. Scanlon had an asteroid named after him because one of his fellow hobbyists, a professor emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, nominated him for that honor.

For a short period before becoming a plumber in 1926, he was a stenographer for the P&LE Railroad. His interest in astronomy began in 1928 after reading an article on making telescopes.

Mr. Scanlon completed his first telescope in March 1929, using unfinished glass from Vermont and plumbing pipes and fittings as a mount. He built it in a small workshop next to his Van Buren Street house on the North Side.

He collaborated with Chester B. Roe and other local telescope makers to organize the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh. Its first meeting was June 9, 1929, at Calvary Community House on Allegheny Avenue, North Side.

In 1930, with the help of friends, Mr. Scanlon built the first aluminum-domed observatory on the roof of his workshop to block out nearby streetlights. The Valley View Observatory became a landmark for the next 65 years.

In 1934, Mr. Scanlon was invited by Corning Glass Works to attend the pouring of the 200th Hale telescope mirror.

He sent an invitation to Einstein to attend the amateur astronomers association display at the convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Pittsburgh in 1934. The legendary scientist spent about 20 minutes at the display and later corresponded with Mr. Scanlon.

Between 1935 and 1938, Mr. Scanlon and astronomers association colleagues participated in the design and promotion of Buhl Planetarium. The late philanthropist Henry J. Buhl allowed the group to use the basement of the facility for telescope making and to operate the 10-inch rooftop telescope for public viewing.

He also helped start the the association's monthly lectures.

Mr. Scanlon had the distinction of seeing Halley's comet twice, in 1986 and as a boy in 1910, and was interviewed on national television about his experiences.

Mr. Scanlon also appeared on WQED's "North Side Story," to talk about Valley View Observatory.

A Pennsylvania Historical Marker was erected along McKnight Road in Ross in June 1998 to commemorate the site of Mr. Scanlon's observatory nearby. During the ceremony, Mr. Scanlon received a surprise, the naming of asteroid 8131 for him, an honor recommended by Truman Kohman of Carnegie Mellon and approved by Eleanor Helin, a leading professional astronomer.

"He was very pleased and thrilled by that," Kohman, of Mt. Lebanon, said yesterday.

He said Mr. Scanlon was thorough and, as an example, cited a survey he had conducted in the 1930s when Kohman was in high school.

"I met him about 30 years later and he dug up the original questionnaire," the retired professor said.

His historic Valley View Observatory has been dismantled and is in storage in Butler. There are plans to reconstruct it at the site of the amateur astronomers association's Nicholas E. Wagman Observatory in Frazer, incorporating Mr. Scanlon's aluminum dome and the original 10-inch Springfield telescope that it had housed. Mr. Scanlon donated the telescope for naval navigation training during World War II; it was discovered recently at Bethany College and returned to the astronomers association.

"His children were all raised with a quest, a curiosity for knowledge," said his son, Kevin Scanlon of McCandless.

In addition to Kevin, Mr. Scanlon is survived by two other sons, Leo Jr. of Gaithersburg, Md., and Thomas of Riverside, Calif.; three daughters, Dr. Christine Scanlon and Celeste Scanlon, both of Oakland, Calif., and Monica Rumsey of Richmond, Va.; eight grandchildren; a sister, Marie Cole of the South Hills; and two brothers, Raymond of Whitehouse, Texas, and Norman of Barboursville, W.Va. His wife, Margaret, died in 1965.

Friends will be received from 7 to 9 p.m. today at Simons Funeral Home, 7720 Perry Highway, Ross. Services will be at 10 a.m. tomorrow at Nativity Church, Franklin Street, North Side.

Donations may be made to the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh's Leo Scanlon Observatory Fund, in care of John Holtz, 176 Hidden Hill Drive, Sarver 16055.

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