Wineka column: Gazing into sky never gets old

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 25, 2011

ATWELL TOWNSHIP — Many of us go through life without really looking up, unless we hear the roar of a distant jet, follow the dive of a hawk, spot a flash of lightning, marvel in a rainbow or take in holiday fireworks.
Ralph Deal and his oldest sister, Alice, have made it their habit to look skyward when others don’t. At night, they find an appreciation in the vastness above us — the canvas of shimmering lights that translates to planets, stars, constellations and galaxies.
On nights when the weather cooperates and the skies are clear, members of the Astronomical Society of Rowan County gather in the front yard of the Deal homeplace, have a short business meeting and then turn their attention — and telescopes — to the skies.
It’s a monthly routine club members have followed now for 30 years. Ralph Deal has been with the Astronomical Society since its founding June 21, 1981; Alice Deal, since 1989.
Members often get lost in the wonders their telescopes find.
On an early winter night in 2007, Bill Kiser and John Sims couldn’t tear themselves away from the 15-inch telescope always brought out for the meetings. When they finally checked the time, they were shocked to realize it was 12:45 a.m. — the night had started at 7:30 p.m.
“All of a sudden they said, ‘We should leave,’” Deal recalls. “‘Ralph needs to go to bed.’”
They could have stayed all night, had they wanted, Ralph shrugs.
Ellen Trexler, Grady Withers and James Torrence organized the society’s first meeting, and when Ralph’s father, C.M. Deal, spied a notice in the newspaper that the group was forming, he told his son that he might want to attend.
Ralph Deal held a fascination for astronomy since his parents took their five children out into the yard on Oct. 4, 1957, to follow the path of the Russian spaceship Sputnik, the first man-made object to orbit the earth.
When the event was over and the rest of his family went inside, 9-year-old Ralph lingered behind, still looking up.
“I’ve loved it ever since,” he says.
The Deals operated a general store across from the house, and Ralph noticed a telescope in one of his father’s Blue Book store catalogs. Ralph says he “hounded” his parents until they bought him the telescope for Christmas one year.
Most everything he learned about telescopes and looking toward the skies was self-taught through books, magazines, fellow enthusiasts and his own observations.
From the beginning
At the first Astronomical Society meeting Deal attended, the group met at the Margaret Woodson Planetarium in what is today Horizons Unlimited. Deal was chosen as the club’s public relations person.
“I didn’t have to say anything — and got elected,” says Ralph, who still holds the same position. Alice Deal is the current president.
Today, the Astronomical Society of Rowan County has 45 to 50 on its roll, but “if we get 10 to 15 (at a meeting), we’re doing well,” Alice Deal says.
After moving from the planetarium, the Astronomical Society met for years at Trexler’s house just outside of Salisbury. Since 2005, the group has gathered at the Deals’ house off Deal Road in southwestern Rowan County.
The Deals’ dachshund, 6-year-old Lilly, is the group’s mascot.
Alice Deal, who worked for Belk or its Budget Fair affiliate for some 35 years, joined the local astronomers’ society out of necessity when she needed a ride to Salisbury during a meeting night. She became hooked at her first meeting, like her brother.
The Deals keep busy, giving programs for Scouts, elementary schools, churches and even businesses. They were asked to bring the 15-inch telescope on the homemade “scope buggy” to Chick-fil-A’s family campout in Concord Friday night. The society also schedules two programs a year at Carolina Mall and has set up observation sessions after Kannapolis Intimidators’ games at Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium.
National recognition
In January 2009, the Astronomical Society of Rowan County was one of five clubs in the country to win a national contest in which the prize was a replica of the Galileo telescope, which the Deals often take as a display piece at presentations.
Deal, 63, attended South Rowan High and has worked over the years with Cabarrus Construction, Cannon Mills, Burlington Industries in Mooresville, Davidson College and Lowe’s corporate headquarters.
As you might expect, his personal collection of telescopes has grown with time. He always enjoys looking at the moon, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars. He delighted in seeing Mercury in the western sky and says his biggest thrills were seeing the Whirlpool Galaxy and the Horsehead Nebula.
“To me, it was totally unreal,” Ralph says. “I had only seen them before in books. It would just totally blow your mind away.”
The Deals say the best observation times for astronomers are the cold, crisp nights of winter when there is no wash-out light from the moon. Alice Deal has a growing concern, with many of her astronomical colleagues, about increasing worldwide light pollution that makes star-gazing tougher.
As for taking an interest in astronomy and what’s above us, Ralph Deal has a simple observation for all of you, based on a lifetime of looking up.
“It’s well worth their time to get into it,” he says.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@