Alan Fiala ’64

27 May 2010

Class: 1964

Major: Astronomy

Residence: Falls Church, VA

Deceased: May 26, 2010

A remembrance by Dave IgnatAlan Fiala died May 26, 2010, in Arlington, VA from respiratory failure, one of the effects of polio contracted in youth.  He graduated in 1963 with several awards, including magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa and the Sigma Xi prize, three years after entering Carleton with the class of 1964.In the Yale graduate program in astronomy he concentrated on celestial mechanics following the lead of professor Dirk Brouwer. At the US Naval Observatory he became expert on calculating voluminous data useful in studying solar eclipses, including precise measurement of the solar radius.On his retirement from the USNO in 2000 colleagues arranged to have his name assigned to an asteroid discovered in 1973, which is now “3695 Fiala.”He had many interests outside of astronomy. When we were roommates in New Haven in 1963-1964 I found his regular attendance at pro wrestling in the arena across the street from our apartment an interesting contrast to his academic achievements.  Later he was a member of a sports car racing team and a master beekeeper.Two formal obituaries:By George Kaplan, U.S.Naval ObservatoryIn the Beatrice, Nebraska Daily Sun, June 4, 2010Dave IgnatUpdate:  An Alumni Distinguished Achievement Award will be given posthumously to Alan Fiala at the Carleton College reunion in June 2013.

Alan Dale Fiala came to Carleton from Beatrice, NE, the son of a postal clerk, and the second of three boys raised in a four-room house in a small prairie town. He was a brilliant student, graduating magna cum laude in three years with a major in astronomy and a minor in mathematics, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi and Pi Mu Epsilon. Although his degree was awarded in 1963, he always considered himself to be part of the Carleton class of 1964.

During a summer break at Carleton, Al arranged an internship at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., and after being awarded a Ph.D. in astronomy from Yale in 1968, he went on to spend his entire career at the Observatory, winning numerous awards as an internationally recognized astronomer.

Assigned in 1973 to modernize prediction of lunar and solar eclipses, Al developed software for calculating eclipse phenomena and created eclipse maps that are still the basis of computations at the Observatory. He wrote numerous articles and papers on eclipse calculations, and was leader or co-organizer of expeditions to ten solar eclipses around the world.

In 1996, Al was appointed chief of the Nautical Almanac Office, where he’d been a summer intern in 1962. He was responsible for four annual publications that set the international standard for accuracy for positional astronomy and celestial navigation, modernizing them, revising their scientific basis, and overseeing public distribution through the Internet.

He won frequent recognition during his observatory career, including the Captain James Melville Gilliss award for service. When he retired in 2000, his colleagues named a minor planet discovered in 1973 as “3695 Fiala” in his honor.

At age 9 in Nebraska, Al Fiala was diagnosed with polio, leaving him with impaired mobility and a lifetime of associated health issues. But he refused to allow his physical condition to define him, or to interfere with his incredibly diverse interests in science, music, sports, gardening, beekeeping, literature, cooking or travel. He learned to play the tuba during high school, and he even managed, as a young man, to join a sports car racing team as a mechanic.

His brother John Fiala later noted Al’s tenacity: “Alan went through several surgeries all alone at hospitals in Minneapolis. The surgeries were to put a rod in his spine, which partially straightened the scoliosis and increased his height by seven inches. His later work as a mechanic bending over that low Team Celtic Lotus strengthened his abdomen so that combined with the spine surgery, he could abandon his back brace.”

Throughout his life, Al amazed friends with his positive outlook, his sense of humor, and his meticulous attention to detail in any project he decided to pursue. He was an inveterate sports fan, from Carleton and Yale football to professional wrestling. For nearly two decades, he was a regular at the Indianapolis 500. He loved to cook, and specialized in overseeing holiday dinners with his family.

When his brother started doing genealogy research on his parents, Al pitched in enthusiastically, scheduling stops at libraries and courthouses in Illinois and Indiana, and even taking classes in the Czech language to try to help translate what they found.

Al was blessed in his later years by his relationship with Mary McHugh, a longtime friend who joined his travel around the world and in the U.S. They particularly enjoyed driving to Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” tapings in various places, including a European cruise featuring the entire cast.

As his brother John later recalled, “Mary’s sudden tragic illness and death in 2008…was a devastating blow to Alan, and he did not ever really recover from the loss.” An obituary prepared for the American Astronomical Association noted Alan’s professional achievements, his inevitable good humor, his grace under adversity, and his constant willingness to donate his time to innumerable worthwhile causes. It concluded: “His life was an inspiration to many.”


Submitted by Scot McConachie

One of the interesting things about reunions and mini-reunions is that you can just start talking to someone you didn’t know at all between 1960 and 1964 as if you’ve just taken up a conversation you left off years ago.  That’s how Al Fiala and I got to know each other better, talking late into one night at a mini-reunion. 

The initial attraction for me was Al’s acerbic wit—I’d repeat one of his observations here, but though harmless it was mischievously at the mild expense of a classmate.  Later on it was our mutual concern over the College.  It wasn’t worry, but more puzzlement—what was different about the College now from what it had been when we attended? 

Al wondered about things like why the College had had so few Presidents before we went to Carleton, and why so many since those days, and why you could no longer properly think of the President as the “academic head” of the College. 

Al was a big picture guy.  A few years ago, out of the blue he sent me an email asking if I’d seen a certain article about the general decline of the English Department in the colleges and universities.  What did I make of it? 

To put the whole subject in the language of architecture, I think Al saw the Carleton of our day as Neo-Classical—its purpose clearly expressed in its institutional form, which revolved around the phrase “Arts and Sciences,” all other considerations being ancillary.  The College of today seems more Baroque—beautiful but complex, not straight-forward in its message—the arts and sciences obscured somehow by the ornamentation. 

I miss our late-blooming friendship.  I wish we’d made more of it.

 

 

 

 

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  • 2013-12-09 09:36:19
    Scot McConachie

    One of the interesting things about reunions and mini-reunions is that you can just start talking to someone you didn’t know at all between 1960 and 1964 as if you’ve just taken up a conversation you left off years ago.  That’s how Al Fiala and I got to know each other better, talking late into one night at a mini-reunion.  The initial attraction for me was Al’s acerbic wit—I’d repeat one of his observations here, but though harmless it was mischievously at the mild expense of a classmate.  Later on it was our mutual concern over the College.  It wasn’t worry, but more puzzlement—what was different about the College now from what it had been when we attended?  Al wondered about things like why the College had had so few Presidents before we went to Carleton, and why so many since those days, and why you could no longer properly think of the President as the “academic head” of the College.  Al was a big picture guy.  A few years ago, out of the blue he sent me an email asking if I’d seen a certain article about the general decline of the English Department in the colleges and universities.  What did I make of it?  To put the whole subject in the language of architecture, I think Al saw the Carleton of our day as Neo-Classical—its purpose clearly expressed in its institutional form, which revolved around the phrase “Arts and Sciences,” all other considerations being ancillary.  The College of today seems more Baroque—beautiful but complex, not straight-forward in its message—the arts and sciences obscured somehow by the ornamentation. 

     

    I miss our late-blooming friendship.  I wish we’d made more of it.

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