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Delbert Harold McNamara, an internationally recognized authority on intrinsic variable stars, passed away on January 9, 2014 after suffering a massive stroke the previous day. He was 90 years old.
Harold, or Mac, as his friends and colleagues knew him, had an active career spanning 63 years. His research was focused on refinements to the extragalactic distance scale. Mac was always looking at the big picture and those of us who worked with him over the years will miss the enthusiasm that he always exuded when he would come running into one of our offices after working out some detail in the life history of a distant Cepheid or RR Lyrae star.
Harold was born on June 28, 1923 in Murray, Utah, to Florence Evelyn Williams, a homemaker, and Delbert H. McNamara, an auto mechanic. As a boy, Harold was fascinated with astronomy and history. He began his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. His move to higher education was interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy during World War II. Harold served in the U.S. Navy from 1943–1946 and left the service as a Lieutenant JG. He served aboard USS LCI(G)-365 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944. His ship was sunk in January 1945 at the Battle of Lingayen Gulf and Harold was given a survivor’s leave. During this leave, he and his college sweetheart Elmeda Robison were married on February 21, 1945 in Palo Alto, California. In addition to his love for all things astrophysical, everyone who knew him realized that Harold was a loving and devoted husband, father, and grandfather. Harold and Elmeda had three children, 18 grandchildren, and 49 great-grandchildren.
After the war, Harold resumed his studies at the University of California at Berkeley. He finished his bachelor’s degree and went on to earn a Ph.D. degree in 1950. As a graduate student, Harold was a recipient of the Lick Observatory Fellowship. He later worked in a postdoctoral fellowship at Berkeley that involved five years of teaching and research with the well-known astronomer Otto Struve.
In 1955, Harold joined the faculty at Brigham Young University. He was the first BYU faculty member with primary training in the field of astronomy. He instituted a graduate program in astrophysics in 1957. Harold retired as a Professor of Physics and Astronomy over 50 years later in 2006 at age 83. Retirement did not slow Harold down much and he continued to be an active researcher. His last article, titled “The RR Lyrae Stars: New Perspectives” (McNamara and Barnes, 2014, AJ, 147, 31) was published posthumously in the Astronomical Journal a few weeks after his passing.
Harold focused his early research on eclipsing variable stars. His later work concentrated on intrinsic variable stars used as distance indicators such as dwarf Cepheids, RR Lyrae stars, and classical Cepheids. He enjoyed the work of determining fundamental stellar parameters including distance, temperature, radius, mass, and age. He worked on improvements to the classical Cepheid and dwarf Cepheid Period-Luminosity relationship and searched for ways to determine intrinsic stellar properties. His recent work dealt with absolute magnitudes of the different classes of RR Lyrae stars that are found in globular clusters. Virtually all of Harold’s work was connected to calibrating the extragalactic distance scale. He felt strongly that this line of research would help answer cosmological questions about the age of the Universe and the Hubble constant debate during the last half of the 20th century.
Harold was at home with a telescope and loved to go on long observing runs. He frequently traveled as a guest investigator to locations such as McDonald Observatory in Texas, Mount Wilson and Mount Palomar Observatories in California, the South African Astronomical Observatory in South Africa, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory and Las Campanas Observatory in Chile, and Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. Harold authored or co-authored more than 100 publications and has presented his research at various conferences around the world.
From 1968 to 1991, Harold served as editor of the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. Harold also served as a member of the Board of Directors of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific from 1968 to 1969. He launched the popular and successful ASP Conference Series in 1987 and served as the Managing Editor until 2004. The ASPC produced more than 300 volumes of conference proceedings during his tenure.
Harold had many opportunities to travel in connection with his observing runs, editorial responsibilities, and attendance at conferences and meetings. He was well known for sharing these travels with Elmeda and they had the opportunity to visit many diverse locations around the world.
Harold was a member of the American Astronomical Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, the International Astronomical Union, and Sigma Xi. He received numerous honors and awards during his long career. These include the George Van Biesbrock Prize, which was awarded in 2000 by the American Astronomical Society, and the Distinguished Service Award presented in 2010 by the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Other awards and recognition from BYU include the Karl G. Maeser Research Award (1966) and the Fourth Annual Distinguished Faculty Lecture (1967), as well as the Wesley P. Lloyd Memorial Award (1982–83) for excellence in graduate education.
Harold was an enthusiastic teacher and a talented scientist, possessing an intuitive ability to examine complex data and make determinations of fundamental physical parameters in order to make sense of the Universe around him. Harold was known by many in his field and highly respected by his peers. He is remembered as Dr. McNamara by several generations of BYU students. He was an energetic and animated lecturer in the many sections of introductory astronomy that he taught during his career. In small section graduate classes, he is remembered as a research-oriented professor who often insisted that members of the class work together during the semester to produce a manuscript for publication. Harold was a mentor to me and to many others over the years. He was known as a man who led by example. He taught more than science by exemplifying kindness and generosity through his actions. Harold will be greatly missed by all who knew him, and by those who have learned from his research and expanded upon it.
Obituary written by: Michael D. Joner (Research Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Brigham Young University)
BAAS Citation: BAAS, 2014, 46, 006