The Snow Woman
(No. 70 - premium content) The People Speak
As I mentioned in the last issue, Age: The Next Everything is now called Stephen’s People. The name reflects my desire for us to explore aging as a community, with lots of voices. Today we hear from Patricia Hill, 66, who lives in the Los Angeles area. She shares a story about finding love at 63. But it’s not what you think.
Change often happens by accident
by Patricia Hill
Patricia Hill operating the Snow Solar Telescope
On Sunday, May 6, 2018, I fell in love. Deep passionate love. A friend invited me to hear a chamber music concert inside the historic 100” telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory. I had never been to Mount Wilson, and as we walked up the three flights of stairs to the top deck of the giant dome I thought, “Hmm, interesting.” We were seated, and suddenly there was a deep rumbling noise and the shutter at the top of the telescope opened, revealing the late afternoon sky. I fell instantly in love with a bunch of historic old telescopes and a mountaintop high in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles. This love has only deepened with time.
After the concert we all went downstairs for wine and cheese. I was wandering around, discovering marvels at every turn. I spotted a colleague from my former career in special effects film whom I had not seen in thirty years. Amazingly enough he recognized my 63-year-old face and we started talking. It turned out he is a trustee at the observatory, so I asked if they needed volunteers. Yes, he said. I took it with a grain of salt because places always need volunteers, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do it. I really did not expect to hear from him, but that Tuesday I received an email saying the director of the observatory thought I was a good fit to operate the historic Snow Solar Telescope. I’d recently retired and had the freedom to pursue this amazing opportunity, so two days later I waited nervously outside the entrance to the observatory to begin this new phase in my life.
After a few lessons I soloed. Operating the Snow, as we call it, allowed me to use skills that had laid dormant for the 26 years I taught elementary school in Los Angeles. Although teaching is most definitely my calling, it was never my passion. Camera work, photography, moving big mechanical systems around, lining up mirrors and lighting were my passions, which I put aside when I became a single mom at the age of 33. Operating the Snow, I found those skills were still with me, and I felt like myself in a way I had not felt for decades. It was heady stuff. I have always been the woman doing jobs men traditionally did, from pumping diesel fuel as a summer job in college to working in a machine shop and crewing on an experimental airship in my twenties, to eventually becoming a motion control camera operator until my mid-thirties.
Patricia Hill (right) as a young machine operator at Tyler Camera Systems, in Van Nuys
When I first started working with the Snow it was used only occasionally for the STEM program students on field trips. It is a unique and majestic old telescope, and I quickly saw how it needed an advocate to gain the recognition it deserved. The former operator handed it over to me, and stuck with the big reflector telescopes himself. Suddenly, I became the Snow Woman. That title is a huge honor that I continue to work hard to deserve.
For the first year I operated it infrequently, as STEM tours are sporadic. In year two I attended the two-week CUREA Astrophysics summer institute with international students in undergraduate and post graduate universities.
After that I realized I wanted to do more. I asked the director if I could curate the Snow, and was given permission to do anything I wanted. I started pulling historic photos of the telescope from the Carnegie Institute archives, had prints made and framed, and created a little gallery. I gathered together artifacts from the telescope and turned two tall gray shelves into a mini museum. Then the pandemic hit. We had received a grant to paint the telescope, so I was able to assist the staff removing paint (there’s a pneumatic tool called a needle gun that is a joy to use), and then assisting with a little of the repainting. I can honestly say I know every inch of that telescope.
Using the needle gun
The observatory reopened in June 2021. I decided it was time to share the telescope with the public, so I asked if I could open it on weekends. The Snow had never been available to the public since its installation in 1904, so I was really excited. I started opening it on weekends in July, and as of January, 2022 I have had almost 800 visitors. I took the docent training in 2019 to become more knowledgeable about the history of this observatory, so I give public and private tours in addition to operating the telescope. When I’m on the mountain I stay in the hundred year old Monastery, named by the observatory’s founder, George Ellery Hale, for three days at a time. It has become my second home.
Operating The Snow awakened within me the impostor syndrome, something common to many, but especially to women in science and technical work. With the help of some brilliant scientists who mentored me I have overcome this, although it does rear its ugly head occasionally. When that happens, I use my intellect to curb my emotions. I am the only female telescope operator on the mountain. In my presentation to guests, I always speak about a few pioneering women astrophysicists who were not allowed access to the telescopes and worked as human computers. Their discoveries allowed male astronomers like Hubble to make world changing discoveries. I want to be a positive role model for the young girls and women who come to visit the observatory.
My purpose in writing this is to acknowledge the freedom that aging and retirement bring, and the importance of setting goals and learning new things. My current goals are to continue honing my skills as a telescope operator, to operate the Snow until I’m at least 70, to learn more about astronomy and astrophysics, and to embrace any other surprises life has in store. I am excited to see what the future holds.