Wynn Wacker (1949-2023)
At the August 11th 2023 meeting of the Madison Astronomical Society, we learned that the Society had lost one of its longest serving members and guiding forces, Wynn Wacker.
Wynn was born in Madison on November 14, 1949, to Roland and Midge Wacker. From an early age, Wynn was fascinated with all things science and devoured books and TV shows such as Mr. Wizard. Early on, he acquired an Edmund Scientific 3-inch reflector telescope and with the help of a dime store Handbook of the Heavens, began to teach himself the sky. Wynn’s parents were always supportive of his interests and he later was able to upgrade to a six-inch telescope and began to build a library of reference books and atlases that served him well into adulthood. His interests extended far beyond the astronomical into most other areas of science.
From childhood, Wynn’s wry sense of humor was also in evidence. He loved Mad Magazine and National Lampoon, and younger sister Gaye was on the receiving end of many pranks and practical jokes. Later in life, Wynn was always quick with an amusing anecdote to punctuate a discussion about almost any topic, scientific or otherwise. His laughter was full and infectious.
Wynn first encountered the Madison Astronomical Society in the form of the Junior Society while a student at Cherokee Junior High (now middle school). It was probably around 9th grade (1963-64) that his friend Cynthia Karp invited him to join the Juniors, which was the young persons’ entree to the Society. In those days, the MAS had an age requirement of 18. Soon after, in the halls of West High School, Wynn met Eric Thiede who was to become a lifelong friend and fellow member of the Society.
Wynn grew into a science-obsessed young man during those years at West, graduating from high school in the spring of 1967. He later described his high school self as the “prototypical nerd, with glasses, briefcase and pocket protector. Needless to say,” he added, “the profile went with some harassment, since ‘nerd’ did not become a badge of honor until much later.” Having friends like Eric and the nerd culture at West helped him clarify his scientific interests.
Wynn went on to the UW Madison and graduated in 1971 with a degree in Molecular Biology. With the Vietnam war escalating, his desire to enter graduate school was delayed briefly until his draft status could be resolved. During those years, his involvement in the Society continued and he earned praise for his Jupiter observations through the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers. He served a term as MAS president in 1973-74.
Wynn was married in 1973 and ultimately not drafted into the war. He did several years of graduate work at UW and made significant progress toward his PhD, but ultimately abandoned those plans and moved to Maryland with his wife in 1977 so she could pursue her own graduate studies. While there Wynn worked for a series of biotech firms. His marriage ended in divorce after about a dozen years and by 1992, Wynn had moved back to his hometown to take a job with Lunar Corporation where he worked in the IT end of diagnostic imaging. Lunar was later acquired by GE and Wynn spent most of his career there.
Upon returning to Madison, Wynn found an MAS that had undergone many changes while he was away. It had a new observatory in Green County and was beginning to experience the technological revolution that came with the personal computer age and, a few years later, the rise of the internet. He dived right in and maintained a high level of involvement that continued right up to his death. Wynn served on the board of directors as vice president for most of the decade from 2000-2010 and played many other important roles within the club. He participated in nearly all the club’s outreach activities in those years. He advocated for and contributed to efforts to attract young people to the club. He spearheaded fundraising efforts to add facilities to the Yanna Research Station. He was always willing to write an article when the club had a newsletter and loved giving talks at our Moon Over Monona public events.
It’s hard to think of many MAS events that Wynn missed. His friendly smile and ever-present MAS ball cap were fixtures at our meetings, outreach events, picnics and banquets.
In the final year of his life, Wynn had begun to experience health issues which he feared would eventually impact his mobility and ability to live independently. Wynn was very private and valued his independence fiercely. When he realized that this solitary and private lifestyle would soon be in jeopardy, he put into action a plan to end his own life quickly and painlessly. On August 5th, he carried out his plan. Ever the scientist, Wynn had carefully researched the options beforehand and was ready to take control of this final stage of his life.
Wynn’s lasting legacy to the club may be his quiet, steady leadership and his ability to be the voice of reason when disagreements surfaced. Many a meeting characterized by exchanges of heated opinions gave way to calmer resolutions when Wynn spoke up and put things in a larger context.
We’ll miss you Wynn.
(Written by John Rummel, August 2023. Photo of Wynn is from the MAS Transit of Venus event at Donald Park on June 5, 2012, photo by John Rummel)