Ken Willcox with his C-8 telescope at Lake Titicaca during the 1996 Southern Skies Star Party.
On February 26, 1999, exactly one year after the great Caribbean total eclipse of the Sun, astronomers everywhere were eclipsed by the untimely death of Kenneth W. Willcox. As his wife Sara put it "There was an eclipse of the fun" when Ken lost his eleven year battle against cancer.
As a boy, Ken was always fascinated by the stars and he quickly became an accomplished amateur astronomer. That passion grew when he joined Bartlesville's local astronomy club. He was later elected President of the Astronomical League in 1988 and also served on the board of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.
Ken witnessed his first total eclipse of the Sun in 1979. That event inspired him to collaborate with Mark Littmann on a comprehensive guide to eclipses in preparation for the great total eclipse of 1991. The resulting book TOTALITY: Eclipses of the Sun has remained a popular reference on the subject long after the 1991 eclipse. Willcox recently finished work on the second edition of "TOTALITY" which will be published by Oxford University Press in May 1999.
As much as he enjoyed observing and photographing eclipses, Willcox especially loved sharing that joy with others. Among the most dedicated of eclipse chasers, he organized and led five major expeditions to total solar eclipses in Hawaii (1991), Bolivia (1994), India (1995), Mongolia (1997), and most recently Aruba (1998).
Throughout this period, he was thoroughly committed to insuring that every expedition member enjoyed the best eclipse experience possible. This concern even extended to taking personal responsibility for the weather on eclipse day! Ken fondly called the members of his eclipse expeditions his 'chicks' and the term was quite appropriate given how much Ken acted like a mother hen. At the time of his death, he was busy planning an eclipse expedition to Turkey in 1999. Both the eclipse and the expedition will take place, but the experience itself will not be the same without Ken.
He was a frequent speaker at astronomical meetings and he also taught physics and astronomy classes at Bartlesville Wesleyan College. Visitors to the Willcox home were frequently invited out back to Ken's observatory where he delighted in showing off the latest comet, bright planets or even just the Moon.
He was born in Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1943 and lived there most of his life. He married his wife Sara in 1963 and they raised two children. Willcox earned a BS in chemistry and math from Northeastern State University in 1965 and an MS in chemistry from North Dakota State University in 1974. He was employed at Phillips Petroleum in Bartlesville as a polymer chemist from 1974 until his death.
I was first introduced to Ken in 1994 through a series of emails and telephone conversations while sharing information about our two rival eclipse expeditions to Bolivia. By the time Ken and I finally met face-to-face during that trip, I felt like we were already old friends. But Ken had that effect on everyone. His boundless energy and enthusiasm, wonderful sense of humor, down home common sense, and mid-western friendliness endeared him to all he met. He loved to laugh and he enjoyed regaling us with his past adventures.
Once while leading his eclipse group in Bolivia, Ken was introduced to a local dignitary as the "President of NASA". Not wanting to embarrass his host, Ken signed his name as NASA's head man into a two hundred year old guest book containing the signatures of many world leaders and royalty. Ken joked that the FBI might show up any minute to arrest him for impersonating a government employee. Then he winked at me and asked if I'd like a raise!
Ken's affection for the people of Bolivia was so great that he returned there in 1995 with a gift of two large telescopes. He was hardly prepared for the official reception waiting for him as he was led across the large rotunda of Parliamentary Hall by the Mayor of Potosi while a brass band played. When he realized that this pomp and circumstance was all for him, he thought "Oh my God, what have I got myself into!? If they discover I'm just an Okie amateur astronomer, they're liable to lynch me!"
Ken returned to Bolivia several more times to establish the Southern Skies Star Party. This event unites northern amateurs on an annual journey to discover the splendors of the southern heavens. Ken's legacy lives on with SSSP'99 the fourth year of this annual event.
A tireless evangelist for the glories of the heavens, Ken was a deeply religious Christian whose unshakable faith and strong family helped him fight cancer and live life to its fullest. When he wasn't involved in astronomical pursuits, he was scuba diving, spending quality time with Sara, teaching Sunday school, flying a plane, playing with his grandchildren, swimming with whales or ballooning with friends. He was always ready to try something new with an eager child-like enthusiasm that was infectious.
In the five years I knew him, Ken was much more than a good friend. He became the big brother I never had. I will forever treasure the memories of our voyages together into the Moon's shadow. I wonder what the heavens must look like from Ken's side now.
Farewell my friend. I will miss you more than any words can possibly express.
Fred Espenak, 1999 March 9
Ken Willcox loved both people and eclipses. He brought a group of 110 to Bolivia for the total solar eclipse of 1994 Nov 03. Ken photographed the eclipse with his Questar.
An endowed memorial scholarship has been established in Ken's memory. Checks should be made payable to Bartlesville Wesleyan College with a memo regarding the Ken Willcox Endowed Memorial Scholarship. The mailing address is:
ATTN: Kent Stroman
Ken would be especially pleased that a science major will benefit from this fund for years to come.
WebMaster: Fred Espenak
Planetary Systems Branch - Code 693
NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland 20771 USA