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Influential Fairbanks resident Jack Townshend dies at 85

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Posted: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 1:06 pm | Updated: 10:37 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

FAIRBANKS — In addition to a long — 67 years — and successful scientific career, Jack Townshend’s positive philosophy of life, which he based on serendipity — always finding something good or useful throughout daily life — made him stand out wherever he happened to be.

“To make the most of every moment in every day, was his essential philosophy. He really believed that,” said News-Miner columnist Dermot Cole, who has been writing about Townshend for 25 years and knew him through running.

“He would say, ‘The only time is the present,’ and that is why he lived the way he did.”

Townshend, 85, died Monday from cancer at his Fairbanks home.

Whether it was family, work, sports or the community, Townshend could be counted on.

“He was a really attentive husband and devoted himself to caring for his wife, Frieda, in the last 10 years,” Cole said.

“He was a good soul. He was interested in other people, and he was good at working behind the scenes at a lot of things.”

And when Townshend was running races, it wasn’t important to him if he won or not, Cole said. He would be in the back of the pack talking to people.

“There was this incredible positive energy emanating from the guy. You couldn’t be down talking to him. He was unstoppable and dynamic. He’s an unforgettable person because of that.”

Born in Brandywine, Md., the 11th of 12 children, Townshend’s father was a geophysicist with the U.S. Geological Survey, a federal agency working in seismology and geomagnetism. He took great interest in his father’s profession as a youth, and when his father retired, shortly after he returned home from service in the U.S. Army, the younger Townshend managed to convince the agency to hire him. He was hired with the stipulation that he work toward a college degree.

Townshend did take college courses but never did get a degree. He worked for the USGS on the East Coast for 17 years before transferring in 1963, as chief of the College Observatory on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus.

By the time Townshend officially retired in 2010, he had a doctorate in hand the honorary doctor of science degree was awarded to him in 1995 by UAF for “his distinguished and unwavering service to the scientific community and the University, and for his optimistic devotion to the Fairbanks community.”

The honor was one of many Townshend received for his achievements and contributions over his long career, including commendations from President Bill Clinton, the Alaska State Legislature, the Explorers Club and several international science organizations.

A new multi-building observatory, located on a 46-acre research site, was renamed by the university in honor of its visionary and developer, the Jack Townshend College International Geophysical Institute.

The original observatory site on upper campus was named Townsend Pointe in 1999.

UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers first met Townshend when he delivered mail on campus 40 years ago, and lauds him for staying the course in his career for so many years.

“Lots of people jump around to different careers, but he was someone who stuck with it and made a difference over the years,” Rogers said. “He was the seventh most senior person in federal service in the USA when he retired as special assistant to the university and the USGS.”

And in return, last year Townshend endowed a fund for students in research — The Jack Townshend Family Student Research Support Fund.

“He wanted to get students involved early,” Rogers said.

Townshend’s colleagues over the years were friends as well as co-workers.

“Of the hundreds of observatories in the world, he managed the best,” said Syun Akasofu, retired GI and International Arctic Research Center director.

“His data was the best in the world and most used by the international scientific community. His data was trusted.”

Roger Smith, a retired GI director, concurs.

“Jack made an enormous contribution to geomagnetism in this country. He installed and designed observatories in Alaska at Barrow, College, Deadhorse, Shumagin and Sitka, and several in the Lower 48. He was instrumental in modernizing the older observatories 100 years ago. The USGS called him their special projects manager.”

Smith said Townshend’s positive, outgoing personality made him a very good diplomat, as well.

“He could work out how to get things done between the federal government and state agencies with ease.”

Both Akasofu and Smith mentioned the enjoyment they received from Townshend’s singing.

“We are all going to miss him. He is quite a character,” Smith said.

A memorial service is planned for 11 a.m. Monday at First United Methodist Church.

Contact staff writer Mary Beth Smetzer at 459-7546.

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