Update 2: A public memorial service will be held at 4pm on November 10th at the University of Virginia chapel. It will be followed by a reception at the McCormick Observatory.
Today, a great person and astronomer was lost to us. Bob Rood, recently retired professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia, passed away earlier today.
Rood was serving his last year as department chair when I came to UVa as a grad student. He was warm, funny, and welcoming. The department had seen significant growth during his time at the helm, but he was ready to put aside the administrative responsibilities and get back to more teaching and research.
When he moved to a new office, Rood was right across from the “big” grad office while I was there with nine other grad students. It was easy to go across the hall and sit down with him to ask him about research or fun old stories from Green Bank. He would tell me about the fun stuff they used to do with the old cars and made sure I knew that there was a liquor cabinet for visiting astronomers! He was still actively doing research, even getting four monitors in his office so he could mimic the GBT observing station while in Charlottesville. You could always tell which car was his, as it had some reference to the astronomy research he was doing.
UVa has a really cool class in its astronomy curriculum called “Life Beyond Earth.” That was also Rood’s doing. I had the privilege of teaching that course in the summer of 2010, and he was always generous with lectures notes, advice, and letting me sit in on his class to observe. He had even participated in some SETI research himself!
In the second semester of Dark Skies, Bright Kids, we started going to Yancey Elementary School which was a few minutes from the house where Bob lived with his wife, Marti. They would have the whole gaggle of us volunteers over for dinner every time we had a daytime and nighttime session at the school, so we would be refreshed in between. Rood made the best risotto I have ever had, and I’m picky. Those Friday nights sitting around with Bob, Marti, all of DSBK, and a few bottles of wine were so lovely.
I had gotten the idea in my head during Science Online 2011 that I was going to collect some of my favorite stories from the history of radio astronomy that are lesser known to the public and publish them as a book. Rood was one of my favorite storytellers. But I put it off, and now I won’t get the chance to hear those stories first hand from him again, and I’m kicking myself for it.
Rood had no problem being controversial, as well. His car sported a very amusing “Astronomers Against McCain” sticker during the 2008 presidential elections. Not that not supporting a Republican candidate is controversial in astronomy, but it was a rather specific sticker! He also had this really great coffee mug that Phil Plait told me about that used to make undergraduates that visited his office rather uncomfortable. It has cartoons of rabbits doing, eh, interesting things with each other all around it. I asked him about it couple of years ago, and he gave it to me to keep because it was “time to pass it on to a new generation.” I’ve always enjoyed the weird looks it gets!
Bob Rood was an excellent photographer and took the loveliest portraits when people weren’t looking. Every few years or so, a few of us would gather in the conference room for his photo-tour of the history of UVa Astronomy, even if it was just to giggle at the 70s hairstyles of our favorite professors. The whole collection is posted at his website, and I’d always eagerly check for new pictures after an astronomy event. Even if you don’t know any Charlottesville astronomers from the 1970s, 1980s, or 2000s, you should at least check out his solar eclipse photos from 2009.
Rood had just begun to enjoy his retirement the way any good astronomer does, as he was off to visit with research collaborators in Italy. His passing was rather sudden, at least to me, and I’m really going to miss him. But, I don’t think he’d want people to be sad, but rather to fondly remember the life that he enjoyed. So raise your best glass of wine in a toast to Bob Rood, one of the coolest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing.