Editor's Note: We are sad to announce the passing of our close partner and friend Chuck Ruehle, the co-founder of Telescopes to Tanzania an ongoing AWB flagship program. AWB's president and founder, Mike Simmons, reflects on the life and personal connection with Chuck and his everlasting legacy with the people of Tanzania.
Most stars are born, live their lives, and fade out with little notice, with little effect on the expanse around them. But a very few have a significant impact and leave a legacy that fuels the creation of new stars, and perhaps new life, both near and far.
Chuck Ruehle was one of those stars, someone whose life meant a great deal to those it touched, and whose legacy will burn bright in the lives of others, both close to home and in the farthest reaches of our planet.
I knew Chuck for only a one chapter of that extraordinary life but it was a chapter filled with passion, big goals and great accomplishment.
Chuck and Sue, Chuck’s wife of 46 years, founded Telescopes to Tanzania, a highly successful and popular program now under the aegis of Astronomers Without Borders (AWB). Telescopes to Tanzania delivers telescopes and other material for astronomy education to schools around the country and provides teachers with training on how to use it. In rural areas in Tanzania this represents the first science training the teachers ever had. Astronomy is a science that comes with its own lab, and in rural Tanzania that lab in the sky above is clearer than all but the most remote locations in developed countries.
Chuck and Sue are both retired pastors of the church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and it was a church mission that first took Chuck to Tanzania. He spent a month travelling alone to several isolated mountain communities, sharing his love of astronomy in the schools, and returned convinced that astronomy was the gateway to STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics – education in the country.
The following year, 500 pounds of telescopes and other materials accompanied Chuck and Sue from Wisconsin to Tanzania. With the program expanding in both countries under the Ruehle’s expert guidance, Telescopes to Tanzania soon migrated from their local astronomy club, the Racine Astronomical Society, to Astronomers Without Borders.
Creating a program of science education in one of the world’s least developed countries was not on Chuck’s list of life goals. But helping people always was, and in Tanzania he saw a need where he could help, and he could do it through something he was passionate about – astronomy.
That passion was characteristic of Chuck. He was a passionate person, passionate about life. There was always something new and exciting to try. He was extremely experienced and knew how to direct that passion towards accomplishments, and he knew how to use it inspire others.
He and Sue said it themselves in 2012 in a post about Telescopes to Tanzania on the AWB website:
“Our love for astronomy was an important motivator for teachers – at least as important as our teaching skills or the many resource materials we left behind. We were measured and received based on our passion and love for the participants and the vision of the universe that we shared.”
Chuck wasn’t an armchair astronomer. He was a Galileo Teacher Training Program Ambassador, a NASA Galileo Educator Fellow, and an Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors for SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy). To qualify for the SOFIA program and fly on the world’s largest airborne observatory, Chuck studied higher-level astronomy, drawing on math and physics from his college studies 50 years earlier. I was delighted to discuss some of the problems with him and Sue. Chuck would appear almost in despair over a problem he was working on but that wasn’t at all what he was feeling. It was intense determination that would quickly turn to glee when he had it worked out. Challenges, and overcoming them, were a joy.
It was typical of Chuck to face a very aggressive cancer with determination. I talked with Chuck and Sue on occasion as he went through several courses of chemotherapy in the hospital. It was an extremely difficult time but Chuck never seemed to lose that spark of passion for life that drove him.
And it was not surprising when I saw Chuck at home, after entering hospice care when the cancer returned in force, to hear him say, “I’m going to beat this. I don’t care what they say.” The spark was as bright as ever despite the clear physical decline.
But this was one challenge Chuck couldn’t beat. On June 1, 2016, just four days after I left Chuck and Sue’s home in suburban Racine, Wisconsin, the stellar life of Chuck Ruehle blazed its last. Like a supernova that seeds the galaxy with elements created deep in its interior – seeds assimilated by the next generation of stars – Chuck left a trail of inspiration, hope, and charity that will be part of generations to come.