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NMSU honors Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh, establishes endowed chair

Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto and who dedicated his life to researching the stars and planets, was honored at an event celebrating his numerous accomplishments and announcing the creation of the Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh Endowed Chair in astronomy at New Mexico State University. The event and signing ceremony was held at the NMSU Golf Course Banquet Hall on Feb. 18.

Members of the Tombaugh family and NMSU administrators gather at the Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh Endowed Chair signing ceremony.

The endowed chair will allow NMSU to bring a visiting faculty or scholar member into the Department of Astronomy.

Clyde Tombaugh's discoveries have shaped and advanced the body of knowledge in the field of astronomy. For many years individuals have provided support for the endowment of an astronomy scholar position at NMSU, the state's land-grant university. When combined, these contributions have grown to support an endowed chair bearing Clyde Tombaugh's name.

"I am honored this endowed chair has been created. It feels like a dream," said Patsy Tombaugh, Clyde's wife. "I hope this gift will further stimulate growth in the overall quality of the astronomy department and its faculty and lead others to consider making similar investments."

In 1926, at the age of 20, Tombaugh built his first telescope. Dissatisfied with the result, he determined to master optics, and built two more telescopes in the next two years, grinding his own lenses and mirrors and further honing his skills.

Using these homemade telescopes, he made drawings of the planets Mars and Jupiter and sent them to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. The astronomers at Lowell were so impressed with the young amateur's powers of observation they invited him to work at the observatory.

Tombaugh stayed at the Lowell Observatory for the next 14 years. The young astronomer earned a permanent place in the history of science when he discovered the planet Pluto on February 18, 1930.

Tombaugh came to NMSU as a faculty member in 1955 and was with the university until he retired in 1973. While at NMSU, he started the Planetary Group, an astronomy research program and he was instrumental in designing and obtaining funding for the university's Tortugas Mountain Observatory. He was also largely responsible for making the astronomy program a separate department at NMSU.

"Many factors have come together to allow this endowed chair to happen," said Nick Franklin, vice president of advancement and executive director of the NMSU Foundation. "We have strong support from the university, deep interest from the Department of Astronomy, student interest at NMSU and donors who see NMSU becoming an important center of excellence in astronomical sciences."

During the event, a signing ceremony officially established the Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh Endowed Chair. On hand for the signing were Patsy Tombaugh, NMSU interim executive vice president and provost Bob Moulton, astronomy professor Bernard McNamera, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Pamela Jansma and Nick Franklin.

"The Department of Astronomy will benefit for many decades because of the generous spirit of all the people who have made the Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh Endowed Chair possible," McNamera said. "We are especially happy that this honors Clyde and his wife who contributed so much to this department."

The Clyde and Patricia Tombaugh Endowed Chair honors the astronomical contributions of Clyde Tombaugh. The endowed chair will provide salary support for an astronomer, either as a post-doctoral or lecturer appointment at NMSU or to support a visiting professor. The individual will deliver lectures designed to enhance the instructional, research or service programs of the Department of Astronomy.

The length of the appointment and yearly salary of the appointee will be recommended by the Tombaugh Chair Committee.

The NMSU Foundation is a separately incorporated, nonprofit organization developed solely for the benefit of New Mexico State University. The purpose of the foundation is to secure, manage and invest private gifts for the benefit of NMSU's teaching, research, extension education and public service programs. For more information visit http://giving.nmsu.edu.