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Local Astronomy Enthusiast’s Gift Allows Students to Witness
Transit of Mercury

Posted: November 12, 2019

The planet of Mercury glided across the face of the sun Monday morning, providing a spectacular view for students on Thomas Aquinas College’s California campus. From a balcony in St. Thomas Hall, dozens watched through a telescope, outfitted with a solar filter, that was the gift of a new friend and benefactor of the College, Mr. Paul Dougherty.

“I’m very pleased that so many people showed up today,” says Mr. Dougherty, 90, a retired Department of Defense technician who lives in nearby Ventura. “That was the most people who have ever looked through that telescope — let alone in one time period!”

The Transit of Mercury — during which the solar system’s innermost planet passed between the earth and the sun — was visible on the West Coast from about 7:30 to 10:00 a.m. “This is a relatively rare occurrence,” explains Dr. Gregory Froelich, a member of the College’s teaching faculty who organized the viewing party. “The last transit took place in 2016, but we will not see another until 2032.” Students were able to witness the event through a large telescope that Mr. Dougherty gave to the College this summer.

Yet Mr. Dougherty not only donated the telescope — he built it.

When he retired in 1995, this U.S. Navy veteran began to pursue an interest in astronomy that dated back to his childhood. He set upon constructing a Newtonian telescope, building nearly all of the parts himself, save for the 16-inch professional-grade parabola. This labor of love would consume most of his time — “usually more than eight hours a day, and usually seven days a week” — for the next 12 years.

“I ignored almost everything else,” Mr. Dougherty recalls. “I worked late at night, then got up early in the morning and went back to work.” For an assistant, he had his young grandson. “He helped me by drilling holes and did all sorts of things,” says Mr. Dougherty. “He thought that was the greatest thing ever, to run a piece of machinery and make something.”

The telescope includes numerous modifications — some off-the-shelf, some the fruit of Mr. Dougherty’s own ingenious designs — to improve image clarity, simplify maintenance, and facilitate the finding of celestial bodies. Its appraised value is $18,000, but Mr. Dougherty estimates that he spent twice that amount on materials, often for parts that took several attempts to perfect, to say nothing of the value of his labor.  

For the last 10 years, Mr. Dougherty made good use of the telescope, which resided on a patio in his backyard, making numerous improvements here and there. But as he entered his 90s, and operating the device became more difficult, he began searching for a suitable new home for it. Around that time he saw an article in the local newspaper about the College’s purchase of some 700 acres of ranch property surrounding the California campus; the article referenced plans to acquire a telescope. “I read the article and thought, ‘You know, that’s a good place for my telescope,’” he says. “At the College, it might get used often by a lot of people.”

It certainly did on Monday morning. “We couldn’t have asked for a better way to introduce Mr. Dougherty’s telescope to our students,” says Dr. Froelich. “It was wonderful to see how many turned out for a firsthand experience of the marvels that they study in our Natural Science and Mathematics classes. They were delighted, and we, students and faculty alike, all look forward to many more viewings in the days and years to come.”

For Mr. Dougherty, it was heartening to see his creation bring so much joy to so many. “I was very glad to have it brought here,” he says. “And I continue to feel very fortunate that it’s where it is.”

Paul Dougherty (2019)

Paul Dougherty

Caleb Skvaril (’19)

“Learning from the great books, you can see the questions that history’s greatest thinkers have asked and all the ways that they have tried to answer them. You’re able to see what’s right about what they’re saying, but also what’s wrong. The more your opinion is challenged, the more you have to refine it in order to get closer to the truth.”

– Caleb Skvaril (’19)

Asan, Guam

“I am grateful to Thomas Aquinas College for educating new leaders for our Church, leaders who are grounded in their personal relationship and commitment to Jesus Christ.”

– Most. Rev. George Niederauer

Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco