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Heaven's Hook, Al Mlinar

by Perry Pezzolanella

Every astronomy club has a member who stands out among the rest and is always helping others within the club feel included. They enthusiastically teach others the basics and nurture their knowledge so that they can gain a better appreciation of the universe around them. It may seem tiring and frustrating, but nothing could be further from the truth. This member takes joy in the hobby and wants people to feel engaged with a sense of belonging. The Mohawk Valley Astronomical Society was blessed with such a member for nearly its entire existence. That member was Al Mlinar.

Al was the most helpful and creative person anyone could know. He joined MVAS during the summer of ’92 to further his interest in astronomy, but mainly to help cope with the loss of his wife earlier that year. He often said that joining MVAS helped him through that very difficult time. Little did he know then how many friends he would make and how loved he would become. He was only 77 years old that year, but full of energy and enthusiasm that rivaled the younger members. He participated in the member’s Show & Tell that holiday season by showing off a beautiful print of all 110 Messier objects that he purchased from Sky Publishing and recommended several astronomy books that could be purchased or found in a library during those pre-internet years. Al was very active in all club activities and built a 4” reflector with the club for his young grandson, Patrick. Al had the gift of skilled hands as he was always tinkering, designing, and fixing things to enhance the hobby such as finder brackets, mounts, and adapters to aid in easier observing. Al participated in so many star and solar parties that he became a favorite among the public during our public gatherings. He could convince anyone to look through his telescope or hand-held solar filter with ease and that led to him affectionately earning the nickname, “The Hook”. He knew how to lure the public and engage them, and they were appreciative in return. I would hear “Thank You” many times from the public since I usually set up my equipment near him.

He loved the Moon and gave us all maps and a list of Moon facts. Personally, I do not think he needed the maps. He knew the Moon like the back of his hand; he knew the name of every crater and feature. He helped several of us earn our Astronomical League’s Lunar Observer’s Certificate for the celestial object that most overlooked or ignored, but not with Al around. You learned all about the Moon. Earning the certificate and pin is a tribute to him and to his dedication to astronomy.

With all the rest that the sky has to offer, Al was fascinated by the red dwarf known as Barnard’s Star. This was because of its visible proper motion among the stars that can be noted in only a few years. I am not sure if he ever noticed any motion, nor did I follow it myself, but I personally presented him with a framed copy of its motion among the stars from my Millennium Star Atlas. As further proof of his fascination with this famous star, he used it, in part, as his email address, “alstarbarn”.

Al’s biggest and best adventure with MVAS was his trip to Aruba with several club members, including myself, in late February 1998 to see a total solar eclipse. He did not consider going at first as he thought he was getting too old and that his health might not hold out. With a little convincing, he took the bait, and flew off to Aruba with us only a few weeks before his 83rd birthday. I think he actually had more energy than the rest of us younger adventurers. I recall him staying up long past midnight exploring the Southern Cross and other southern celestial delights with his binoculars near our resort’s windy golf course long after we all conked out. He made a complete copy of all 26 charts of the Wil Tirion Sky Atlas 2000 shrunk to fit in plastic protectors for us to take to Aruba. My copy ended up being my workhorse for finding nearly all of the 501 asteroids I later observed, and I still use it to this very day.

Al’s love for MVAS went beyond the heavens. He became the official coffee maker at meetings for years and rarely missed a meeting. His coffee was so enjoyed that when he decided to retire from the task, he had to train his followers to do it just right, and being an excellent teacher, good coffee can still be enjoyed at our monthly meetings. The annual summer “star-b-que” was never complete without his famous cucumber salad. He made delicious Aruban pea soup when he invited us Aruba travelers to his house for a celebration of our successful trip. We rewarded him with many birthday cakes in return. Who would believe a cake with 100 on it, then 101, 102, 103, and 104! Each cake had a photo of the respective Messier object on it: M100, M101, M102, M103, and my favorite, M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. Al was slowing down and after a fall in his home he took permanent residency at the Alpine Rehabilitation & Nursing Center. This made it impossible for him to meet with the club for his 105th birthday party, but we didn’t stop as we sent him a large card with a photo of M105 that was presented to him at his birthday party at the home. Al’s contribution to the club, his friendliness, helpfulness, and knowledge earned him lifetime membership in the club. He also won the Ray Conley Memorial Award for “Leadership, Dedication, and Service” during the 1999 annual banquet, which I proudly presented to him.

Personally, I will remember Al best for our Aruba adventure. He was always there with me during those long nights of marathon observing of the southern wonders we could never see at home. Many times, he would catch me dozing off, bobbing, or simply sleeping with my charts and binoculars. You would think I would be catching him dozing, and I still laugh at the thought of me, nearly 38 years old, competing at stargazing with someone nearly 83 years old, and losing! The total eclipse of the Sun was beautiful, and it will forever be a cherished memory experiencing it with him. I can still picture him sitting on a rock pile safely watching the progression of the eclipse with the solar filters that he made, observing totality with his binoculars, and how thrilled he was to see the streamers and prominences. He always said that the solar eclipse could never be topped. Al was a pleasure to sit with at banquets, picnics, and Christmas parties. He was never a critic, had a great sense of humor, and always helped me through hard times. He was there for me and all of us. He praised me for all my hard work with the articles for the club newsletter, knowledge, and memory retention. I was lucky to enjoy his company for so long. He eventually slowed down, after he hit 100, and I missed his presence at the meetings and star parties. Many of us gathered with Al during the March 2019 MVAS meeting to celebrate his 104th birthday. I looked at all the remaining Messier objects, M105-M110, to see what each would look like on a cake. I told him during that birthday party that I would probably be tasked by the future club president to figure out what to put on his cake for his 111th birthday as we both knew the Messier catalog only has 110 objects. We both laughed at that and I assured him I would figure it out. Maybe my 111th asteroid! More laughing! He knew I loved a challenge!

Thank you, Al, for the beautiful memories we all share of you in our club. To be able to still laugh while writing and typing this is testament of how you touched all our lives in a way very few friends ever can. When we gather at star parties or observe alone, we will always remember you when we observe Barnard’s Star, and think of you looking back at us when we gaze at the Moon. Rest in peace Al, but I am betting you are up there observing with your binoculars instead!