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Walter Steiger

Walter Steiger, the grandfather of modern astronomy in Hawaii, died on February 6th 2011, and will be greatly missed by his friends, his colleagues, and all who value the progress of science.

You can read our tributes to Walter, or add your own, by clicking on the word “Comments” on the left.

if you have photos or weblinks you would like to add please email them here.



  1. On behalf of Walter Steiger’s family, I’d like to let you know that
    Walter’s memorial service will take place on Saturday the 12th
    of February 2011 at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center from 5pm.

  2. Walt was a wonderful and unique person and we all are poorer for his passing. Amazing that he went from us at eighty seven, while riding his moped like a twenty year old. In some way this says much about him… fully engaged and ever trying new things. He had many careers and left positive imprints in many arenas and upon many people. But beyond all his successes, Walt was a down to earth good human being, and an old fashioned gentle-man. I am sure many stories will be told at his memorial service, and hopefully some documented here.

    So long Walt, knowing you was good.

  3. What a sad thing for our community to lose Walt in this way.

    How lucky we all were to have known him!

  4. He was a great person and a great boss. I’m going to miss him a lot. Betty, I’m so sorry for your loss.

  5. I first met Walter Steiger several years ago when I was engaged as a consultant on the early conceptual planning of the Imiloa Astronomy Education Center in Hilo. Walt was one of the early, enthusiastic supporters of this trail-blazing new education facility.

    I took an immediate shine to this gentle, caring and thoughtful soul – and enjoyed many deep conversations, ranging from geo-politics, to science education, philosophy, and extending to a mutual interest in aesthetic and nature photography.

    Over the years, even after completion of the Imiloa project, I found various reasons to return to Hilo from time to time – and one of the most compelling of these was an opportunity to sit down occasionally with my dear, treasured old friend, Walter Steiger.

    I last saw Walt in October, 2010 – when I was back at Imiloa for a full-dome production festival. I was thrilled to note that he was being honoured by his home community for his long-time contribution to the understanding of astronomy as well as Polynesian navigation. We met at Ken’s House of Pancakes for breakfast one morning – and I took these pictures of him. The close-up reveals a kind face that telegraphed to the world a countenance of peace, understanding and great, yet unpretentious warmth – and wisdom.

    I was intrigued by Walt’s snazzy red Honda moped – and wanted to capture the image of him on this wonderful machine that had restored his mobility. Looking at these images now, it is a poignant reminder that it is just as well that we cannot see into the future. I could not have known or even guessed, that this marvellous red moped as he scooted off to home after breakfast, would one day a few months later, be implicated in his demise. I do recall having a vague and uneasy feeling as he sped away, but I quickly came around to think of the alternative of Walt being constrained, immobile, and dependant on others for personal transportation around town.

    In that context, it made eminent sense. Even with the benefit of hindsight, maybe it still does.

    Aloha, dear friend. I will never forget you.

    Condolences to Betty and to Walter’s extended family – as well as to his many, many friends in the astronomy and Hawaiian communities.

    Ian McLennan
    Vancouver, Canada

    • Rebecca Sakaguchi
    • Posted February 10, 2011 at 9:10 am
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    I’m so lucky to have had a Grandpa like him. He was by far the neatest, kindest human being I have ever met. My fondest memories of Grandpa Walter are swimming at the ice pond, playing with the soda bottle rocket he made, and when he bought a jalapeno pepperoni pizza for lunch when my husband and I came to visit. He went all the way to pizza hut on his scooter just to bring back a pizza for us. That pizza is now my husband’s favorite.

    I would always marvel at how many things my Grandpa knew about. I’d always brag to my friends about how smart he was, even though I was horrible, myself, in his areas of expertise. His passing has inspired me to persevere in college, even with the three children I have. He would be proud to see his grandchildren aspire to do great things such as he did.

    I love you Grandpa Walter. I will always cherish the memories we’ve had with you. I’m so thankful to have had you and Tutu in our lives.

    Thank you so much to all his friends and colleagues for remembering him, and celebrating his accomplishments. It means a lot to our family.

    Rebecca Sakaguchi
    Makakilo, HI

  6. They say that if you leave this world a better place than when you arrived then you led a good life. By that or any measure, Walt Steiger led a very good life indeed. He touched so many of us with his kindness, his gentle nature, and his aloha. I had the pleasure of knowing Walt for years and considered him a friend as well as a mentor. He was a true gentleman and a real inspiration. The world is a sadder place without him. Mahalo, Walt, and rest in peace.

  7. What a wonderful person to have known. I always enjoyed seeing Walt and Betty over the years, usually one time a year at the MK Users’ meeting. With deepest sympathy to Betty. My thoughts are with you.

  8. Along with the many others whose life he touched to their gain, I was deeply saddened at the tragic loss of Walter Steiger: I offer my sincerest sympathy to his wife and family

    Walt’s truly pioneering work on Haleakala in the 1950’s and 60’s established the mountain summit as a site of exquisite quality for the most delicate observations of the Sun and the faint radiation of the night sky – his personal scientific specialty. Walter’s drive, based on his work on the mountain, was the major force in the incorporation of a program in solar physics within the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics – in whose overall conception and realization he played a central role.

    Walt’s earlier initiative in establishing sites on Oahu for observing transient phenomena on the Sun – during the International Geophysical Year of the 50’s, and later – had pointed up the crucial role that data from the Hawaiian longitudes would play in ensuring a continuous record of the state of the Sun and the origin and evolution of its transient phenomena.

    All of this culminated in the construction of the Mees Solar Observatory on Haleakala.

    To ensure that the promise embodied in Mees should be quickly realized Walt worked to attract the interest of Boulder’s High Altitude Observatory in using the new facility and was successful in attracting Dick Hansen of the HAO to move to Maui with a new and very sensitive instrument for studying the solar corona. At the same time he worked vigorously, and ultimately successfully, to encourage his colleagues in the Physics Department to seek faculty appointments to ensure that the University should play its own, and proper, role in building a program of significance based in the State’s natural attributes that he had done so much to reveal.

    It was Walter’s infectious enthusiasm for all the possibilities he saw that underlay my decision to join in this exciting new venture, and as one who correspondingly benefited directly from his drive, imagination, and spirit I am honored to express my gratitude to him, as I join in expressing also the shared loss of his many colleagues and friends across the world.

  9. I have fond memories of Walt, who was the guiding force in selecting the site on Maui’s Haleakala for one of the 12 satellite tracking stations around the globe during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58). It was the first overseas optical satellite station, and for 5-1/2 months I was one of two observers there photographing all five satellites in orbit at the time. In a 12/18/1957 Maui News story, Steiger predicted correctly: “We hope this station will form the nucleus for increased activity on Haleakala, particularly solar studies.” And, just as Walt had forecast, the mountain has become a “Science City”! (see photographs)

    I reestablished contact with Walt via e-mail in 2002. We kept up periodic exchanges for six years. Our last contact was in June 2008. On the 50th anniversary of Sputnik and the dawn of the Space Age, we both were among those honored with an “IGY Gold Club” certificate in recognition of our IGY participation. (I nominated him for the honor.) The Sputnik years were an exciting pioneering period. Many of our colleagues have passed on and now, sadly, so has Walt. He wrote me: “I guess there aren’t many old-timers around like you and me who have experienced the excitement of those times. It’s a totally different world now–technologically, anyway. I’m not sure it’s any better though.” Sorry to say I haven’t been back to Hawaii in the more than 50 years since. I regret missing the opportunity to see Walt Steiger one more time.

  10. Grandpa was an amazing person, ever positive and encouraging and blind to the faults of those he loved.

    I was always blown away by his fascination with new technologies at every age — from establishing the first observatory in Hawaii way before I was born to learning how to use Photoshop to help embellish his photography, he never shied away from the future. He was so proud of himself the first time he learned to print his digital photos onto card stock so he could make his own greeting cards!

    I don’t know that I have a favorite memory of him. My memories are both clear and jumbled and filled with lots of images — a giant glass buoy wrapped in rope at his old apartment on Punahou; the quest I went on with my father to find Grandpa’s name plate, still on his office door at UH Manoa; picking strawberries in his garden in Hilo; the pokiness of his beard and mustache when he would give me hugs; how until I was 20 or so, he always misspelled Grandpa as Granpa in his letters; sitting with him as he shared his stories of his time in Japan; learning the word “tangentially” in reference to how to take care of a rug he wove himself; marveling at the humorous approach he took when he wrote his autobiography… and receiving a letter from him in the mail a few days after he passed away, accompanied by one of his homemade greeting cards featuring a photo of `Ohia Lehua.

    Grandpa you are loved and will be missed. Keep riding that moped and taking those photos and learning new things. I expect that the technology they have where you are now must be AMAZING!

    Monchalee Steiger
    Kamifukuoka, Japan

    • Gareth Wynn-Williams
    • Posted February 10, 2011 at 9:10 pm
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    Walter was one of the people who persuaded me to join UH in 1978, and I have always enjoyed his company in each of his many subsequent careers.

    But I probably became the closest to Walter in these last few years as he became my instant email authority on all sorts of historical questions.

    Whether it involved researching why US Topo maps from 1910 refer to “Mauna Kea Astronomical Observatory”, updating his “Origins of Astronomy in Hawaii” website on the IfA server, filling me in on the history of the Hawaii Academy of Science (of which he was once president), or discussing the possibility of moving the “Musser Planetarium” (the 20 cubic foot grey cabinet in Watanabe 112) to Hilo, his lucid emails shot back to me almost as soon as I had sent one to him. Although he commented on his poor eyesight, he was mentally as alert as any scholar I know or friend I have.

    Walter: I am one of the hundreds of people who owe their careers to you. I am sorry that I cannot attend your memorial service on Saturday, but I will raise a glass to your memory on that evening.

  11. One of my fond memories of Walt was his willingness to help with the “Fifty Years with the Bomb” exhibit. He provided some 35 mm slides
    taken from Haleakala of high-altitude nuclear explosions above Johnston
    Atoll and other materials about nuclear testing activities near Hawaii.
    He also helped arrange for this exhibit to be displayed at UH Hilo in
    the Fall of 1999. I’ll miss him.

    • Cheryl Braunstein
    • Posted February 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm
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    In my life, I have been privileged to meet some wonderful and kind people, many during my time in Hawaii. But I have rarely encountered someone so noble and so good-hearted. Walt was a man who believed in everyone and looked with kindness where others saw fault. He was the kind of person who made one want to be a better person – an inspiration to all. It’s been several years since I last saw Walt, but I’ve never forgotten this man who I held so dear, and who was such a gift to have known.

  12. There are so many of us that have benefited from Walt’s vision. As one of the recent scientists to live and work on Haleakala I am awed by what one wise and powerful soul can set in motion. Today the summit of Haleakala lives with a vigor that is hard to guess from the old photo’s of Walt and the satellite tracking station. Yet, the greatest jump in our ability to see the Sun since Galileo — the ATST — and the most complex telescope (solar or otherwise) we have ever built will soon propagate forward his vision for generations to come. Thank you Walt.

  13. Besides his many astronomy achievements, Walter Steiger is remembered for his connection with the Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO), for he spoke at the dedication of MLO on June 28, 1956. Recently he told me how he almost didn’t make it to the ceremony. The road in those days was very rough, and the gas tank of the car in which he was riding suffered a punctured gas tank from a chunk of lava. One of the travelers said that the leak could be plugged with a bar of soap, and Walter just happened to have one in his travel bag. Thanks to Walter’s bar of soap, the leak was quickly fixed and the bouncy journey to the observatory was resumed.

    The University of Hawaii Press selected Walter to be one of the two final reviewers of my book on the history of MLO to be published later this year. I came to know him well while writing the book and developed great respect for his knowledge, his enthusiasm and his friendly manner.

    While Walter will be sorely missed, his legacy lives on in the role he played that culminated in the great telescopes atop Hawaii’s tallest mountains.

    • Antony Schinckel
    • Posted February 14, 2011 at 6:52 am
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    Walter was a wonderful inspiration to me, as he was to so many others. I met him when I joined the Caltech Submillimetre Observatory in 1988, and was amazed at his incredibly broad range of activities. Not only was he the Site Manager attending to the multitude of administrative activities that entailed, but his basic love of physics and astronomy meant he stayed tightly coupled with all the engineering work at the telescope.

    His vigour on Mauna Kea surprised me the first time I went up the mountain with him in 1988 – and continued to the last time I saw him there, which was I think around 2004. Though nearly 20 – 40 years older than many around him, his ability to function physically and mentally was amazing to observe. Many of us were left trailing behind him on the stairs around the CSO dome.

    No task was ever too small for Walter – he would never ask anyone to do what he wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do himself. His application of basic physics principles to solve many instrumentation and engineering problems was a joy to behold and a reminder to not let things get unduly complex.

    His love of Hawaii and of education lead him back working with the full spectrum of students, both directly through the University of Hawaii at Hilo and through the ‘Imiloa Centre. He was perhaps at his best when knowing he was helping someone learn something new.

    Walter was incredibly humble. His role in developing astronomy in Hawaii, both in terms of the University’s academic program and the development of two of the best observatory sites in the world, cannot be underestimated. Yet he remained quiet and self-effacing, and always willing to listen, learn and re-evaluate himself if someone had a new idea. A rare combination.

    Thanks Walter – you made my work, my life, my place of being, better

  14. Walter was a close personal friend. The pottery pieces we made together at the community college in Hilo were a fun project, of a quality encouraging to other beginners. What many people don’t know about Walt was his talent as a photographer, winning awards for photography right into the time he was having problems with his sight. He was humble about his multiple talents. Walter Steiger was simply the nicest human being I have ever known.

  15. Walter and Betty were so kind to me when I was in Hawaii. Walter was the best person to know if you were just getting interested in Astronomy – how lucky I was. I remember Walter so fondly and send my condolences to Betty and the rest of his family and friends.

  16. I worked as a student aide for Dr. Steiger in 1965 and we remained friends all these years. I received a Christmas card this year, and, as usual, one that he had made. He said he didn’t really want to correspond via facebook and that we should still do either email or letters! He was ever the eternal optimist! I will miss him tremendously!

  17. Walter was a pretty good photographer, see an online gallery he put together a few years ago:

  18. Thanks Walt for always being a friend…everytime I see Waipi’o Valley I will think of you!

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