John Sanford, 1939–2011

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, January 20, 2012

We at Astronomy magazine just learned about the death of a wonderful man and important astronomy enthusiast who helped change amateur astronomy for the better, especially in the 1970s and ’80s. John Sanford died December 11, 2011, after a long illness in his beloved Southern California, at the age of 72.

John Sanford
Longtime Astronomy readers may know that John contributed a column on photography in astronomy starting with his story “Optics for Astrophotography” in the very first issue in August 1973. He was a major driving force in astroimaging as it was really developing into its golden age in the mid and late ’70s, along with a who’s who of names including Alexander Brownlee, Marty Germano, David Healy, Walt Hamler, Ben Mayer, and Jack Newton.

John was a native of Orange County, New York. He witnessed a solar eclipse at age 8, and that immediately hooked him on astronomy. He went on to college at Cornell University and then the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he abandoned the idea of becoming a professional astronomer and fell in love with photography. He went back to Cornell, served in the Vietnam War, returned to the United States, and became a college instructor. His settlement in Orange County, California, with his wife, Ellen, led to discovering the Orange County Amateur Astronomers Association, which later became the Orange County Astronomers (OCA), and John became a driving force in the club and in astronomy popularization.

John was the force behind setting up the OCA’s major club observatory at Anza, which now hosts a 22-inch telescope. He served as the club’s president and was an ever-present, active spirit at the Riverside Telescope Makers Conference for years. He traveled extensively to see astronomical events. In recent years, he settled in Springville, California, for his retirement, and had a fine observatory complex. John was a master photographer of the sky who influenced countless others, and he will be remembered, among other things, for his book Observing the Constellations, published in 1990.

I have fond memories of a group of young guys, myself included, making a cross-country trip in the summer of 1981, heading to the Western Amateur Astronomers meeting in Los Angeles. John was a gracious host to us at his home in Orange County and entertained these unruly teenagers for a couple of days as we learned all about how California amateurs observe the sky.

The astronomy community will miss you, John.

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