By Foundation Member Norman Izett

Updated 31/05/2014

Founded in September 1960 after a series of
highly successful weekend lectures funded by the Auckland University and given
by Mr (Beauie) Beaumont during the August School holidays at the Whakatane High
School. In the end, all were suddenly left high and dry, so to speak, and it
was decided to call a meeting a week later to decide our future which was held
in the Legion of Frontiersmen Hall.

Clive Kingsley-Smith was appointed
inaugural president, Shirley Izett secretary. About 35 attended. Other names
that come to mind are Roy Stewart, Jimmy Morice and High School Teacher and son
in law, Peter Dawson, Dot, Harry, and Bruce Swan. Jim Duthie, Gerald Murphy,
Harry Skeapings, Leo Kavanagh and Nicky Diedren were among others to join later
on. Jim became the secretary in 1961, replacing Shirley who was expecting her
first child by then. No telescope, observatory or land at this time! Committee
member Norman and Shirley were delegated to travel soon after the inaugural
meeting in NZ Road Services Bus to the RASNZ conference in Auckland Museum. We
didn’t know anyone there at all but were soon made very welcome once we
introduced our selves in front of the gathering at the first session. In the
first break, Dr. Frank Bateson, among others, was first to approach us and
introduce himself. This was to become an important part of our history in time
as he was later to become good friends with Jim Duthie for many years
following, right up to Jim’s death. Dr. Bateson was beginning an NZ wide survey
funded by the University of Pennsylvania for the best observing site in NZ and
was initially very interested in Mt Edgecumbe seeing as he owned a retirement
home in Tauranga. He came to Whakatane three weeks later specifically to assess
Mt Edgecumbe/Putauaki, his first site but ruled it out completely due to the
proximity of the lights from the large Tasman Paper Mill before even reaching
Awakeri, much to our great disappointment. After assessing several sites
countrywide, Mt John, Tekapo, turned out to be the best location. There was
considerable ‘Political’ controversy at the time also, due to the involvement
of the US Air Force in this project, but this gradually abated until the Air
Force finally withdrew in later years.

Our first telescope was initially set up
on a concrete mount at a property then owned by Jimmy Morice, west of Eivers
Road and just north of the yet to be formed Hikorangi Street. It was OK, but
bad for the telescope as it was out in the weather, protected only by a
plastic sheet. This situation made the search for a better site really dire
back then. But all was to progress for the better when President Kingsley (his
popular name) successfully negotiated with the then Borough Council for a lease
of a portion of the reserve on Hurinui Ave near where he lived and site and
building work to house our prized new telescope was able to commence in earnest
during late 1963. It featured a dome most skillfully constructed by another
founder member, Freddie Wederell who was formally an auto upholsterer.

This telescope, a ‘Home Made’ 12”
Cassegrain was purchased from Mr. Hargreaves, also as a result of the trip to
Auckland. We were later to find out that it had a problem we weren’t initially
aware that prevented getting a perfect focus. Jim and Norm could never quite
get an accurate culmination of the secondary mirror, even after many hours on
many nights trying. Would just about reach adjustment, then suddenly all would
be lost by adjusting a teeny smidgen more, then having to start all over again,
time and again. It turned out many years later that the secondary mirror had
not been truly ground to match to the main mirror correctly (shades of the
Hubble’s initial trouble!) The problem was finally solved by telescope optical
expert and RASNZ member Gary Nankivell and this telescope worked admirably from
then on, even though the drive motor didn’t always grip well on the heavy Bren
Gun Carrier track, ‘bottom roller’.

The first small observatory to house the
12” Cassegrain was officially opened in May 1964 by Board Mill Manager, Fred
Bridges. The Whakatane Society hosted the 1967 RASNZ Conference. Dr Bateson and
many other renowned astronomers present. This was our first major event and
really put us on the map then. 1967 and Shirley and Norman first to be honored
with an Award Membership. December 20, 1968, and the world watched in awe as
the crew of Apollo 8 left the Earth, circled the Moon for the very first time
and returned back safely.

The next milestone in 1969 was to enlarge
the observatory to accommodate the famous 8” 1884 Grubb Refractor, ex John
Tebbutt, Windsor, Sydney, Australia (died 1913) who had discovered several
comets with it. Dr. Bateson had owned this instrument for many years much later
following it’s move to Newcastle, including when he was stationed in the Cook
Islands after WW2 and later assembled it again at the Mt John site, which had
by this time proved to be the best site in New Zealand as a result of his
countrywide survey. He sold it to our Society for $200! in 1969 on his
retirement to Tauranga (no society there then) where it was housed in the
enlarged observatory and was used for public education in the following fifteen

Also at the end of 1969, Kingsley,
Shirley, and Norman traveled to Gisborne to attend an early RASNZ conference
held there to mark the James Cook Bi-Century. The memory of the program rather
hazy but I do remember the visit to the James Cook Observatory on Kaiti Hill.
Also the trip to and from. Kingsley being scared stiff at traveling at the
limit, or sometimes a tad (or two) over! After his usual habit of driving
around Whakatane at about 60% of the limit in the Triumph Herald car had those

During the 1970s, Jim had begun an
Astronomical News Letter to members and news items to our local paper, The
Beacon, once a month and kept this up for many years to not long before his
death. Bruce Thompson then continuing on from the mid-eighties during which
time a get together of 5 or so members was often called to fold around 35+ of
the various newsletters and other paraphernalia into envelopes, ready to mail
out. Some overseas! This subsided due to the advent of email, but Bruce
continued with our newsletter to 2004, even after previously moving to Oamaru.
The News Letter was never continued after that, sad to say.

Then came the addition of the ex-civil
defense Radio Shack, A WW2 Army hut and one of very few still surviving.
Formally the council building inspector’s office, annexed to the former council
buildings. Then later, the Civil Defense radio shack, and finally donated to us
in the 1970s courtesy member John King, the then Borough Electrical Engineer at
the time, after the new council headquarters had been constructed. This gave us
a much-needed facility for meetings and education as well back then.

Patrick Moore’s first visit in May 1983
filled the Whakatane Memorial Hall and he was made Honorary Member from then

The Grubb refractor was replaced by a new
14” Celestron, a sizable telescope for New Zealand in 1986, as a swap for the
Grubb by the people in Windsor, Sydney who had finally tracked it down to us
and desperately wanted it back to reinstall in it’s original observatory
building that still remained in very good condition after all these years. Jim
Duthie had driven a hard bargain at the time to get the 14” in the end as the
original offer was for a much smaller, 8” Celestron. The old refractor was once
again dismantled, crated up by members comprising, Eric Cleaver, Pearce Atkins,
Jock Ward, Bruce Thompson, Norman Izett and Ian Duthie (standing in for Jim)
whose health was deteriorating by then. Pearce made a professional job of
making the various crates for this bulky instrument to be flown back to Sydney
in a RAAF Hercules Transport this time for its final VIP trip! Our society has
shared a significant part of the illustrious history of this famous instrument.

Norman was less active while employed from
1972 to 1992 at the Tasman Mill, in nearby Kawerau but still managed a
significant contribution during his 20-year stint while there by making the substantial
Mount for it and we had the new Celestron installed and working just in time to
catch Haley’s Comet in 1986 after it had passed perihelion and began to fade
away from us once more. This apparition had been seriously overhyped by the
media in spite of the warnings issued by the astronomical fraternity that it
was never going to match the previous display, given the relative positions of
the Earth, Sun and the comet this time.

During this period, Jim Duthie had
acquired a 10” Newtonian and set it up in his back yard to make checking the
skies, more convenient for him. Jim, Eric Cleaver and to a lesser extent, Bruce
Thomson had traveled the country to represent our society at the various
conventions. Even chair them when serving their terms as presidents at the
respective times.

Another significant event was to host the
Top Half Conference at Trident High School in the 1990s and the dome on the
original observatory dome was removed in 1995 due to a deteriorating
substructure. It was replaced with a new lean-to roof, attached to the roll-off
roof of the extended observatory so that all is opened and closed by the
existing winch mechanism that Norman had fabricated for the 1969 extension.
This was a major project during Bruce Thompsons’ reign and thanks largely to a
big effort at the time by Keith Blair and team. Then not long after, another
working bee saw to the task of applying two coats of paint as well to give the
building further spruce up.

The next important event in October 1997
was the second visit and a very well attended public address by world-renowned
Sir Patrick Moore of BBC fame, given at the Liberty Center which was recorded
by Norman on the new ‘Mini Digital’ format for our archives Then came the sale
of our original Cassegrain much later in 2007/08 to a person in Tauranga to
make way for the massive John Smith 6” refractor.

Then came the bulky 6” John Smith
Refractor. constructed by a highly skilled machinist from Kawerau. A
masterpiece of engineering with its worm drives, clutches, and ancillary gear.
Quite apart from its optics, which he also devised a machine to grind the lens.
We had purchased this from member Jo Bonner who had purchased it from the Smith
estate some time previously, but, because of changes in her occupation, was
never was able to set it up at her home, even though she had spent a
considerable amount on a concrete foundation to house it. She offered it to us
for $1300 and after a refurbish by Ian Bigham and Norman., it was squeezed into
the original observatory in November 2008.

Another real milestone was achieved on
November 4th, 2008 when, after the efforts of previous officers trying many times
during the past 44 years. Norman was at last successful in getting reason to
prevail with the removal of the cursed Oak tree (from just above the present
access steps from the parking area) that had previously been blocking the view
for about 2-1/4 hours of both Jupiter and Saturn that were in very close
proximity in that period. This was achieved by approaches firstly to Mayor
Colin Hammond and his successor Colin Holmes, overruling the stubborn
opposition of Mike Naude, the parks and reserves supervisor at the time. This
also was the beginning of a massive removal program of other trees as well to
drastically improve our horizons. As part of the deal to remove the Oak, we
supplied and planted three Kowhai trees in various places as well as the native
plants, supplied by the Council, and planted by Jo Bonner and Annette Assen
around the site.

The John Smith refractor was dismantled
again in August 2009 and put into storage at George Odey’s residence as it was
just too large for the original observatory. It was replaced a ten inch SCR

Kingsley first 4 years, Norman following 3 years (initially) Jim Duthie 4 years
to 1972. John McQueen and Bert Adams to 1978, then Bruce Thompson 4 yrs to
1983. Then Eric Cleaver began a long stint of 13 years up to 1996. Chris Turbot
took over to 1998, then Ray Watchman for only a couple of months only due to
other commitments and Norman as V/P then stepped up and has been president ever
since. The dramatic site and building development made during this later period
to the present. Norman only remaining foundation member alive in NZ. The other,
ex-wife Shirley, in Hervey Bay, Queensland Australia at the time of writing.
Gerald Murphy, (recently deceased) another longtime member joined a few months
after the beginning and recently donated his fabulous painting of Jupiter from
Europa this hangs in the entrance of the education facility. Diana Watson
served a long secretarial stint in two stages for 15 years from 1991. Patron
Alan Gilmore and Honorary Member have held this position since 1994. Pam
Kilmartin is an Honorary Member and Sir Patrick Moore and Dr. Frank Bateson 
remained as well until their deaths. Also, the late John Williams traveled from
Tauranga for many years to attend our monthly meetings. He died when our new
meeting room was still an unlined shell. Quite a shame he missed seeing the
finished project. Society members have presented a request to address the light
pollution problem to the District Council twice in recent years. Have had some
cooperation, but overall the problem has increased. We are not done yet!

Charlie Lampitt, Nichole Van der Aa, Jono Walker,  2007 Keith Blair; 2006
John Williams; 2004 Diana Watson; 1995 Bruce Thompson; 1994 Eric Cleaver; 1984
Pearce Atkins; 1980 Harry Williams; 1975 Clive Kingsley-Smith; 1972 Jim Duthie;
1967 Norman and Shirley Izett.

Major progress over the last 14 years
including removal of trees (that had steadily grown) to dramatically retrieve
the lost horizons. Parking area really enhanced by Council with a scale of
suns’ diameter compared to Earth at 305mm as part of concrete border (visible on
Google Earth) The project to replace the decrepit WW2 Army Hut with the
well-appointed meeting room began in 2005. Modified to have toilet moved to end
of entrance and veranda fully enclosed with roller and security doors now the
main entrance. Took two years to get legal and permit issues for sewage
connection resolved. A huge ‘One Day’ effort by Keith, Norman. Ian and Charlie
to construct the steps from the car park. A smart new storage building topped
with a Sirius dome with computer control incorporated to facilitate future
telescope/astrophotography etc. The acquisition of more instruments. And the
latest ongoing improvements including retaining walls and a generous amount of
concrete paving added. All recently completed, adding to the very aesthetic
surroundings we have achieved over the last decade in particular and completed
in time for the 50th year celebrations.

The Society purchased a 152mm Lunt Solar
telescope in February 2011, the first and largest of it’s kind in the southern
hemisphere direct from the manufacturers at the time. And last year, a very
high-quality 158mm Williams Optics refractor being the latest acquisition to
enhance astrophotography abilities. Stand out members during this latter
expansion are; President Norman, Vice President Keith Blair, Secretary Diana
Watson, Treasurer Jono Walker, Committee members, Ian Bigham, (who puts in many
hours keeping the grounds in order) Charlie Lampitt and more recently
Secretary/Treasurer Nichola Van der Aa. Nichola has had another baby, shifted
house four times, (the last the weekend before the conference) while also
coordinating the LOC meetings since the SCC confirmed our bid at the 2011
Napier convention to host it here in Whakatane. Just to give an idea of what
she has coped with in this time.

As well, from the early 2000s, as a result
being unable to pay the full insurance at the time, A considerable amount of
assets were written off and it was necessary to raise admission fees (with
quite some opposition) from gold coin to $5. Further increases have followed
twice subsequently and the utilization of the facility had increased back then
from once a fortnight except for December to February to twice a week
throughout the year and any other night by arrangement. Quite a demand now and
manned as always by a small number of dedicated members.

Most memorable events observed during this
time: The brilliant display of Comet McNaught, the  appearance in the
morning skies of Comet Ikeya-Seki during October 1965; The historic epochs of
Apollo 8, the first manned Lunar Orbit in December 1968 followed by the Apollo
11 mission made on July 20 1969 with the first human landing on the moon and a
safe return; The disappointing (this time) return of Halley’s Comet in 1986;
The vision in February 1987 of the exploding star SN 1987A supernova near the
Tarantula Nebula; The
closest pass of Mars for 60,000 years during August 2003;
And the most unforgettable views of Comet
McNaught in January 2007 that attracted worldwide attention. Also in 2007, a
stand out visit by Tom Callahan, all the way from Melbourne, Florida who came
expressly in early June (after being directed to us by Patron Alan Gilmore) to
realize his desire to view the majesty of the center of our galaxy we enjoy
(and take for granted) from our southern latitudes. Tom had recently retired
from the USAF and his interest in astronomy grew rapidly after viewing Jupiter
back home not long before. We received our prized astronomical ‘laser pointer’
three weeks later as a token of appreciation for the hospitality he had enjoyed
here with us.

Also, even though they come in at any
time, anywhere, were the two daytime meteors in particular that startled the
community with their ‘Sonic Booms’. One over Opotiki from north to south in
1989. The other in the late nineties, from east to west, just to the north,
which left a display iridescent colours high in the atmosphere that remained
for quite some time.

All this including the Lunar landings and
the enormous technological strides made since then, not only in the advances in
all facets of telescopic observing and recording but the explosion of the
“Digital Age” has resulted in a huge advance in telescope design, not only in
huge ground-based telescopes now in use and coming online, but also the advent
of the orbiting and revolutionary ‘Hubble’ now followed by several other Space
Telescopes in dedicated wavelengths of light at various orbits and the progress
in land-based telescopes with a mammoth 39 meter version being constructed
right now. This advancement has enabled not only the professional scientists
with their massive instruments, but enthusiasts all over the world to make
scientific contributions of considerable merit with very modest equipment that
is becoming ever more attainable each year. Added to this is the tremendous
advances in parallel due to the ‘Space Age’. Out of this has come the superior
‘Flat Screen’ technology, a result of the need to have much lighter and hugely
more powerful computers than the old, with the very weighty cathode ray
monitors the likes of the early orbiting space and lunar vehicles, the MIR and
ISS Stations and Shuttles required, the combined weight adding to the huge
amount of energy required to lift them into low earth orbit. The advances are
now that this same energy is now used to lift an increasing amount of payload instead. The gains from the Space Age are also benefiting humanity in
many other aspects of everyday life, eg keyhole surgery, cat scan and improved
radiation technology, solar panels, metallurgy, man-made plastics, and carbon
fiber are just some extensive number of examples we all benefit from daily. It
is often stated that early generations of mobile phones had more power than
that of the manned missions to the Moon! Those of us can remember those first
grainy images from the moon on our black and white TV’s back then. A far cry
from the brilliant images we now can see of the grains of Martian rocks live,
in unprecedented detail in HDMI colour on our large flat screen TV’s. Now, the
very latest is that International Banking is using the Space Software that was
developed in the first place to control the launching and operation of
satellites, is now being used to monitor and keep secure all manner of
financial transactions from those with evil intentions.

Many years ago, I had become aware of the
famous Carl Sagan and often play a chapter from his famous, seven DVD ‘Cosmos’
series that Jono purchased some time ago. I found he was born three months
after me and died in December 1996. While he did have the chance marvel and
comment on the early ‘Hubble’ images, it haunts me quite often with the amazing
revelations on all fronts that have followed since as my life continues, just what this marvelous orator would be portraying to the
world at large about this advancing state of modern astronomy that constantly thrills
me and him, unfortunately, has missed with his premature death, a result of

Nowadays, so many people (many too,
remaining skeptical of the money spent by the likes of NASA and the ESA)
happily enjoy all these advances with the GPS navigation in aircraft and
shipping increasing operational safety, but also personally in their cars,
sport activities, emergency beacons etc., the amazing surge in the mobile ipad
and iphone technology, not forgetting all now having
Satellite TV in their homes. Such has been the progress during this fifty year

The Whakatane Observatory has become an
‘Icon’ of the district now, having been the only observatory in the BOP for so
many years in the past, having countless people from all over the world, as
well as an untold number of school classes, visit from near and far. Recent
visitors from France told us they had read about us in some publication there!

Tauranga opened their observatory in 2010
with a more modern telescope of the same size. Rotorua had a small Observatory
for a while but it is no longer operational. The Whakatane Observatory has a
decided advantage over Tauranga in that we can open any night of the year at
any time (within reason) Whereas Tauranga has a strict regime to share the
facilities where they are with about six other organizations and opening nights
are extremely limited. A severe handicap compared to the freedom we enjoy here
in Whakatane.

Main benefactors since 2005 are The
Scotwood Trust; The Lion Foundation; Sky City; The Pub Charities; The Southern
Trust; BOP Energy Trust; Century Foundation; The Whakatane District Council;
Whakatane West Rotary. Also an acknowledgment to the many local businesses who
have assisted us one way or another all along the journey, right from the
beginning to the present.

Added to this, of course, are the countless and ongoing
thousands of hours the members have donated all through these years.



FOOTNOTE A mention must be made too
of the highly successful hosting of the 2014 RASNZ Conference and Variable
Stars South Symposium now to be added to our growing list of achievements. A
further demonstration of the determination and dedication of the Local
Organizing Committee of our Society that made it all such a success.