John Dobson, 98

22 Jan

Most nights after 9 p.m. I consult the New York Times on the Web, paying a small monthly fee for the privilege. Certain columns always intrigue me; dance, of course and the arts in general, but there’s Home and Garden and Real Estate, Books and World. And of course, the Obituary column informs me of the great, the celebrated, the scientist, the politician and noted odd balls.

This New York Times habit dates from childhood. Thursdays the mail man’s car stopped at the mail box; into the flat bottom with curved cover he shoved the Sunday edition of the “Norick” Times, so labeled by my mother. In the years before World War II, the wonderful Rotogravure section with images from near and far intrigued me. I gradually became aware of the Theater section, looking forward to the Herschfeld cartoon.

Tonight I scrolled down to the Obituaries. The top of the column held an entry for John Dobson, 98, streetside astronomer with self-made telescopes. A San Francisco dweller, he set up his telescope one summer twilight at the corner of Broderick and McAllister as I was coming home from work. Several individuals were clustered around him. I didn’t pause long enough to take my turn, but I remember his telescope was aimed southeast at the southwest corner of the intersection. I simply was intrigued by the phenomenon of the man sharing his passion to any passerby curious enough to stop and gaze through the lens. I have no memory of the astronomical event he was facilitating for the curious.

Over the years, John Dobson traveled on buses at the same time I was riding to work, his son Lauren in tow, lunch transmitted to him as they left the bus. His matter-of-fact fatherhood was both plain to me and warming emotionally. “How lucky that child is,” I invariably thought. Within the last ten years, I was on the same bus with him, and said to him, “I remember seeing you take your son to school. How is he?” “Off playing in some punk band in Southern California,” I remember him saying.

It wasn’t clear whether he was disappointed or philosophical. Reading the obituary, no entry found on S.F. Gate, made me realize just how unusual John Dobson was. I found a clear visual memory of him, his slight concave posture, keen eyes and ear-length head of white hair. I recommend the New York Times obituary to you. Thank you, NYT, for triggering the tribute of such a


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