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REMEMBERING JOHN STELZER

Published September 9th, 2021 in In Memoriam, News, UW Blogs

Mathematician, Philosopher, Professor, and Friend of UW

I would like to share a few memories of my friend and fellow Umpqua Community College (UCC) professor, John Stelzer, who died of natural causes several months ago. I would also like to thank his wife, Renie McRae, for a generous donation in his memory to UW’s education fund.

I first met John shortly after moving to Roseburg in 1982. John and his then-wife Kelly were at a farmer’s market where they were selling herbs that they had grown at Elderflower Farm, their charming farm/forest in the Callahans. We struck up a conversation and soon became fast friends. A few years later, we became colleagues when I was hired to teach biology courses at UCC where John was teaching Philosophy and Religion courses and Kelly was teaching Sociology classes.

I always enjoyed the times I spent with them at lunch in the cafeteria or at other chance meetings at the College. John loved a good argument, and would often take the opposite side even if he didn’t actually believe his own premise just to see if he could craft an argument that would win the debate. I remember him making a very persuasive argument that the Earth was flat for the sheer joy of the challenge.

One of my favorite stories of John related to his time at NASA in the early days of the space program. After a youthful indiscretion that apparently involved a girl and a back seat in the straight-laced 1950s, a kindly judge, rather than sending John to a month in the county lockup asked him “Son, have you ever thought about joining the military?” John’s answer was “I’m thinking about it now, Your Honor!”

Military service was what John needed to get his future on track. Testing showed his strong aptitude for mathematics, and the government invested in those abilities. John eventually earned his Ph.D. and wound up working at NASA on the Mercury project that eventually successfully launched Alan Shepard into space.

You might have seen the movie “Hidden Figures” that traced the history of the mostly Black women serving as “computers” – people who did calculations before actual computers existed. John would certainly have rubbed elbows with those pioneers.

Behind in the “space race” with the Soviet Union, the US was desperate to catch up. The launch of the Sputnik had shocked the West, and America was determined to be the first to send a human to space. But an abundance of caution delayed Shepard’s launch, allowing Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin to reach space first.

As John told it, a major problem was that he and his fellow engineers didn’t know whether they could trust the output from the early analog computers that were supposed to send real-time data to Mission Control during the launch. Their solution was pure 1961 genius.

They chose a large cafeteria and cleared all the tables and chairs away. They then used long strips of adding machine paper to create what John described as a “3-dimensional slide rule” that they slid around the floor to validate the machine’s output. Satisfied that the computer was indeed programmed correctly, they gave the thumbs up and the rest is history.

John’s spirit lives on in his contributions to the space program, his many scholarly articles, his impact on decades of UCC students, and now in the opportunities, UW can provide to students in his honor. Many thanks to Renie and to John, who is no doubt crafting another impeccable argument on his new journey into space…  Ken Carloni

 

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