Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Magic of Mentors: Kenneth W. Landon

Once in awhile, I get around to blogging about my own life.  My experiences are part of a chain begun long ago by my Norwegian and Celtic ancestors, but they are much more culturally diluted as a 4th generation American.  The passage of time has a way of rarifying everything, and my own adventures do not yet have the same elusive sparkle as those of my ancestors.  But, when considering the highlights of my own life, I have to say that being fortunate enough to be guided and inspired by some mentors along the way is near the top of the list.  One of those short-term, but influential mentorships was by an astronomy instructor during the early 1970s at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California, which is part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
For a long time I have wondered whatever happened to Kenneth W. Landon.  Though he taught astronomy when I met him, he had also taught various science courses in junior and senior high schools, in addition to many years of instructing at Contra Costa Community College (CCC).  His alma mater was the University of California at Berkeley.  In the 1948 UCB Blue and Gold Yearbook, there is a photo of Kenneth Landon sitting with the Speech Arts Club as their spring President.  He is a rather formal looking young fellow with a blond pompadour atop a high forehead, slightly prominent ears, wearing a suit and tie and wire-rimmed spectacles.

Various internet searches on Landon's name usually brought up nothing, until just the other day, when I realized I had been remembering his first name incorrectly.  After applying new search terms, I was rewarded (sadly) with an obituary from last year.  I also found out that though he had lived in the Bay Area for many decades, he moved to the Puget Sound area in Washington State just three years before his death.  When I moved to Washington in 1979, how could I know that Mr. Landon would end up in Poulsbo--just across the Sound from me?  Well, small world.

When I took my first classes at CCC, I was truly "starry-eyed" over astronomy and science, in general.  Ever since my first visit to an observatory and planetarium as part of a Camp Fire outing during the 8th grade (Chabot Space and Science Center), and falling in love with the initial Star Trek TV series and classic science-fiction that same year, I was ravenous for more practical knowledge about the universe and how it worked.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven when an aunt gave me a book on astronomy for my 13th Christmas, and a quirky uncle gave me--still unbelievable--a small, but useful telescope.

Taking my interest in astronomy to a college level was quite exciting.  Mr. Landon had a great sense of humor and his lectures were entertaining, which was a big plus.  I remember one lecture in particular when he mentioned a book as a way to spark some student interest in how others were involved with astronomy:  Starlight Nights:  The Adventures of a Stargazer, by Leslie C. Peltier.  This 20th-Century memoir by a comet hunter was spot-on for neophytes who were curious about personal impressions from within the field of observational astronomy.  When I heard the title spoken, I nearly jumped out of my chair with excitement, wanting so much to call out and say that I'd already read it!  Instead, shy as I was, I made a point of visiting Mr. Landon in his office after classes that day, because I just had to tell him that his recommendation had already found its mark.  He was amazed that I had read Peltier's book and asked how I found out about it (this was years prior to the internet, of course).  I replied that I had actually been looking for something like that at the library, but did not mention how it radiated and scintillated like a globular cluster from among the astronomy books on the Dewey shelves, drawing me in helplessly.

We talked further that afternoon about my interest in astronomy and his teaching career.  Though he obtained an undergraduate degree in zoology, he soon decided that he enjoyed all science, especially the physical sciences, but had no desire to go back and do the whole college thing all over again.  So, he determined that he could teach a variety of science classes, and in doing so, keep his interest in each discipline alive and growing.  From that brief discussion, I learned that one should never dismiss viable options.  If you have a love of something, there is always a way to work it into your life, and if you can work it into your career, even better!

I did not go into astronomy as a career, after all, because I had to face that my greatest aptitude was not with numbers, but with words.  Instead, I took a path toward the library environment, as well as writing, which were equally major interests of mine.  But, after CCC, I continued on to San Francisco State University to take classes in astronomy, planetarium science, physics and higher math, and I think that without Mr. Landon's catchy enthusiasm and encouragement, I might not have had the self-confidence to even try.

Although I do not "practice" astronomy now, I am always interested in the latest discoveries and have a great appreciation of the physical sciences.  Mostly, I am very thankful for the Mr. Landons in this world, and the lasting legacy they offer to those who are willing to listen.  Through their teaching and support, nothing less than the magic of the universe is attainable.

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