I had already met Jim Marron when I joined the staff of the Grand Rapids Public Museum as its planetarium curator in 1964. It was on a knoll outside Grand Rapids called "Bird Hill" a couple of years earlier. I was a visiting member of Muskegon’s astronomy club at the time, over with some friends to get acquainted with our counterparts in Grand Rapids as we jointly observed a total eclipse of the moon. Members of GRAAA regularly brought their telescopes to Bird Hill to stargaze prior to construction of the GRAAA's James C. Veen Observatory.
As it turns out, if it were not for the sacrifices and generosity of Jim Marron and his wife Evelyn yet to come, there quite possibly might never have been a Veen Observatory.
The longtime friend and colleague of so many of us passed away March 26th after a lingering illness, leaving behind a significant legacy of accomplishment and respect in West Michigan. He was 87 years old and long retired from a career as case worker and auditor with the Michigan Department of Social Services. Retirement left him more time to pursue two long held passions among many others: contemplating and eloquently expounding about the nature of the universe, and practicing thespian talents as both actor and director within the local theatrical community.
Our common interest in astronomy brought us together for good when Jim joined the planetarium staff part-time in the mid-60’s as a presenter of evening and weekend planetarium shows. Because he was older, and surely wiser, he also served as an appreciated mentor during those early years. We would share delightful conversations about astronomy, life, and the world at the nearby Cottage Bar.
Sky shows in the Museum’s original planetarium were totally live at the time, so dexterity was required to coordinate narration with manipulation of the large projection machine while simultaneously pointing out features of the night sky portrayed on the overhead dome. Jim handled that challenge with ease, his relaxed and concise speaking style and natural sense of humor complimenting a broad knowledge of astronomy gained from being a voracious reader and thinker.
When we started using pre-recorded soundtracks for shows in the 70’s, Jim was a logical choice as one of the narrators. Later, we introduced recorded dialogue, and Jim, with his background as an actor, handled these assignments effectively. Most memorable to me are two voice roles he played so well after the planetarium relocated to the Van Andel Museum Center in the mid-90’s: a crusty seaman on Columbus’ maiden voyage to America in the production "Perugino and the Age of Discovery" in 1997, and more recently as a cranky old Planet Mars in the children’s show "Solar System Safari."
Jim became a leader in GRAAA early on, serving on the board of directors for over fifty years. He was the Association’s president in the mid-60’s when the group got serious about a prospect earlier envisioned by their late co-founder and first president, James C. Veen: establishment of a permanent observatory in a more remote and dark location. Sky conditions on Bird Hill, near today’s massive Knapp’s Corner commercial development, were deteriorating with the advance of urban sprawl.
Jim and Evelyn, along with their two young children, Mike and Aubrey, had moved from a home in Lowell to one Jim largely designed and built himself on 18 wooded acres in rural Lowell Township. There, the family could have lived in relative tranquility, were it not for a decision that would affect not only their lives, but also the lives of so many others.
While casting about for possible sites for their proposed observatory, GRAAA leaders had discovered that dark sites initially considered, including Fiske Nob to the north and atop the 92nd Street Hill to the south, would be prohibitively expensive to acquire, perhaps dooming the project from the start.
Then came an amazingly generous offer from Jim and Evelyn Marron. "Build the observatory on our property." There was a knoll at the northeast corner that appeared ideal: remote and nearly 15 miles from the lights of downtown Grand Rapids. All we as a group had to do was hack our way through the woods and build a road to reach it. Even more generous were terms: access rights incorporated into a 99 year lease that would assure the observatory’s longevity. The cost for this – and as it turned out so much more – would be $1 a year! During five years of do-it-yourself construction, involving GRAAA members of all ages, skills acquired by the always innovative Jim Marron while building his home proved invaluable. He was a block layer, (he helped teach me how to do it), cement finisher, carpenter, and principal plumber for the project.
He and Evelyn were so patient and accommodating as tools, shovels, rakes, and other supplies needed for the project disappeared from their home, some never to return. A seemingly endless parade of cars and trucks crossed their property prior to the observatory’s completion in 1970. There must have been many frustrations, and I was surely the source of some of them, but the Marrons seldom complained. At the end of a long, tedious work day, the tired, rumpled, and hungry workers were often invited down to "the house" for coffee, refreshments, and conversation. Jim always had something interesting to talk about.
Little respite came to this generous couple once the observatory was completed. Now the disruptions came not just during the day, but all night as well. Being the closest member residence to the GRAAA’s facility, Jim or Evelyn were often turned to first when a problem was encountered at the observatory, if somebody had car trouble, or if the security alarm went off in the middle of the night.
With initiation of regular public visitation nights in the 1970’s came increasing traffic crossing through and parking on the Marron property. These twice-monthly events continue today with an amazing increase in popularity as they become more widely known.
The original telescope in the observatory’s east dome was a six-inch refractor which Jim himself owned but generously allowed other GRAAA members to use. Eventually, it gave way to an eight-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain, and then a 14-inch Celestron which was later upgraded with a fully robotic mount. The GRAAA fittingly recognized the couple’s generosity, grace, and many contributions to the vibrancy of the Assocation and its Veen Observatory in 2005 when that instrument was named the "James and Evelyn Marron" Robotic Telescope.
It has been difficult for Jim’s large circle of friends and admirers to witness his increasing struggles over the past few years. When asked how he was doing, his frequent response was “I’m hanging in there.” Amazingly, the naturally quick wit, sense of comedic timing honed through years as an actor, and common decency of a very creative and intelligent man remained sharp right up to the final curtain.
Part of the soul of the GRAAA has departed, but will long be remembered. Jim Marron left the stage as he entered it: a class act.