The Early History of RCA: Reprint of 2008 Article "RCA at 20"


by Dale Fenske

This article appeared in the Rosette Gazette in July, 2008. Dale Fenske is a past president of RCA and former liaison to the Astronomical League. Republished with his permission.

Has it really been 20 years? Time goes so quickly. It seems like only yesterday when I exchanged my 60mm Sears refractor for a giant 10“ Cave reflector with a German equatorial mount. (At that time a monster scope was 12 ½”.) I was anticipating some serious astronomy with the Messier list as the agenda. My new scope could view many deep sky objects that I had been missing with the 60mm telescope. Frustration is the word for what came next.

Beginnings: Portland Astronomical Society

On a cold May evening, I tried to find my first Messier object (M1) and spent more than two hours wandering aimlessly through the star fields between Taurus and Auriga, without success! I needed help! The very next day a serendipitous thing happened. Unknown to me, it was Astronomy Day. I went shopping at Vancouver Mall and Portland Astronomical Society (PAS) was celebrating with a display of telescopes and astronomy photos set up inside the mall. I chatted with Fred Dorey, Don Botteron, Larry Mahon and a few others. They told me about the star party PAS had planned at Gabriel Park for that same evening invited me. I was beside myself with excitement.

At Gabriel Park that evening, I asked them to find my missing object, the Crab Nebula (M1). They quickly found it and let me gaze into their scopes. I looked closely and could not believe what I saw. I exclaimed, “Oh, is that it?” I had seen it the night before but did not realize how M1 was supposed to appear. I had passed right over it many times. This gave me a taste of what the sky was really like and what I needed to do to see it. I was hooked.

I then joined the Portland Astronomical Society because I recognized my need to learn more. This was my first introduction to an organized astronomy club. That first year was mind expanding. I memorized the positions of the constellations, the Messier list and hundreds of other objects. I learned the sky the old-fashioned way. I invented personal sky pictures and connective stories to aid my memory to pinpoint objects. There were no go-to-scopes, no computer aided finders and no lasers. When I review the observing club documentation of others members, it still sparks fond memories of my own early discoveries.

When I joined PAS in 1986 the Portland world of astronomy was operating under a black cloud of negative public opinion. This happened because in 1976 PAS, and others interested in astronomy, tried without success to build a grand Astronomical Center in the St. Johns area. It was to include a large auditorium, a 20” public viewing telescope and a large solar heliostat with a light path running through the smokestack. Funding was secured and construction began. I’m told that personality problems then arose and that egos flared. The astronomical construction party and the local neighborhood association quarreled so bitterly that the squabble became public knowledge. Then City of Portland officials became involved in order to settle the dispute. The City confiscated the entire facility including all astronomical equipment donated to the site. Everything on the property was returned to the City and all astronomical dreams for this facility were quashed.

Portland Astronomical Society + OMSI Astronomers = RCA

Due to this former cloud of gloom, by the time I joined the club in 1986, PAS membership had dwindled to only 30 or so members. Meetings were held wherever a room could be found, usually at a local college. OMSI had already tried their own method of astronomical revival by starting a second astronomy club, called the OMSI Astronomers. Their membership averaged between 15-20. Often the two clubs held their meetings together at the old OMSI by the Zoo. The birth of the Rose City Astronomers began in this climate. In 1987, John Buting served as president of OMSI Astronomers and I served as president of the Portland Astronomical Society. When we held our public meetings jointly at OMSI, each president solicited for membership from the audience and, in essence, competed for new members. This seemed silly since the objectives of the two clubs were really identical. John and I met and agreed to attempt to unite both clubs into one cohesive and friendly unit. At following board meetings, held in private homes, officers from both clubs responded positively. The proposal was presented to the both memberships, agreement was reached and one astronomy club was formed in January 1988. The combination membership total was 40.

By June 1988, after much discussion, we selected a new name - Rose City Astronomers. Our dues were $12 a year. The new Rose City Astronomers added new officers to try to rebuild credibility and public interest. RCA appointed a new officer, called OMSI Liaison, to ensure smooth communications between OMSI and RCA. The club voted to support all of OMSI’s astronomy-related events and to coordinate publicity with OMSI. In return, RCA found its new home. OMSI’s Jim Todd fostered our relationship with OMSI from the very beginning and was very instrumental in our success. We are indebted to you, Jim. Thank you. The new RCA by-laws described the duties of two Vice Presidents, one dedicated to publicity and outreach and the other to meetings and membership.


During this time, VP Chuck Dethloff started the Oregon Star Party at Steens Mountain, south of Burns. The Rosette Gazette was established as our official newsletter. The first issue sported the Rosetta Nebula (NGC 2244) on its cover, with Robert Duke as editor. We contacted Richard Hill, the science editor for the Oregonian newspaper, to propose an astronomy column for the public. Richard liked the idea. Robert Duke volunteered as writer of astronomy related columns to inform the public and to promote RCA in the Oregonian.

Since that time, the Rose City Astronomers made a meteoric rise in membership (pun intended). By 1993 RCA had more than 275 families in their membership. While peaking at more than 400, today there are 318 family memberships. Our current board meetings are attended regularly by more officers and members than the total public meeting attendance back in 1988. Star parties and other events scheduled through RCA and OMSI are undisputed successes, sometimes having thousands in attendance. Truly, 1988 was an exciting year for the Rose City Astronomers. This brief summary describing the birth of RCA will be followed by future articles describing the growth and maturity of the RCA club. You RCA members have made it a success. You are invited to write a description of the highlights of your memories of astronomical events, starparties, etc. during the past twenty years. Your articles will appear in the Rosette Gazette.