Chris Westall and Lennie Brown: A GuideStar Interview

Original article appears in GuideStar December, 2011.

Interview by Clayton Jeter
Clayton JeterI first met Chris Westall two years ago at the dedication of the Blinn College Schaefer Observatory” and star party in Schulenburg, Texas. I had recently restored the college’s ‘70s-era Celestron C-14 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. While operating the refurbished SCT that evening under the dome, I was introduced to Chris.

Some months later, I discovered that Chris had formed a new astronomy club in the La Grange area (halfway between Houston and Austin). He invited me to a star party at Lennie Brown’s Bed and Breakfast near La Grange and I have since joined their group, the “Colorado Valley Dark-Sky Explorers”. These two folks are the heartbeat of the astronomy community in their area.

This is a very informal group that loves the night skies. They have several observing sites and always seem to have a star party pending. Let’s see how a new local club came to be and what makes it tick… thanks to Chris and Lennie. Here they are…

The Chris Westall bio…

Having grown up in the suburbs of Houston, there was never any real reason to be looking up at night other than to see the occasional moon phase. Even though I lived less than 2 miles from NASA and was interested in space exploration, I was never exposed to the wonders of stargazing.

It wasn’t until I met some avid campers in college that I started to really venture out away from the lights and begin to realize there was something up there that I had been missing. But it was a week-long trip to Big Bend that really blew my mind and after that, I was on a mission to figure out exactly what it was that I was looking at. After a couple years of casually studying the night sky with my eyes only, I finally got a telescope and haven’t looked back since.

In the intervening years my stargazing got put on the shelf a bit with the birth of children and other reasons, but when I met Lennie Brown a couple years ago and mentioned in conversation that I was a stargazer, she had the idea to offer star parties to her guests and I became the celestial tour guide. This turn of events seriously rekindled my stargazing fire.

From there, it went from the occasional small group star party at her B & B to community star parties that were attracting 50+ people… and thus the CVDExplorers was born in the summer of 2010. And although we’re only about a dozen strong, we are a very tight-knit group that have developed some very strong bonds; which has made our frequent get-togethers—to do the thing that we love—that much more meaningful.

But I would be remiss if I failed to mention Mr. Jeter’s role in all of this. From telescope expert to stargazing mentor to court jester (there’s a reason his last name is one letter shy of that dubious title), Sir Clayton— as he has affectionately become known within the group—has been invaluable to us not only as a technical resource but also with his infectious personality that usually keeps the group in stitches… or wishing they were getting stitches. ;-)

The Lennie Brown Bio…

Lennie, a fifth generation Texan, educator, community development professional and entrepreneur has served to facilitate community-based, economic development for over thirty years. She currently continues to develop and operates historic country lodging and event facility on her family’s ranch near La Grange called TEXANA Trails Lodge (www.texanatrailslodge.com). As a certified teacher in both the elementary and secondary public and parochial education system, “Ms. Lennie” currently serves as a member of SWIFT/AmeriCorps Tutoring & Enrichment Program. She also continues to maintain her private consulting practice (TEXANA Community & Business Development Consultants) in fundraising and multi-sector partnership financing, tourism development and event production in La Grange.

Ms. Brown holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Texas in Austin and has obtained five Teaching Certificates from the State Education Agency of Texas. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Organizational Leadership at Argosy University aspiring to teach at the university level in tourism-related programs.

Her passion for the natural and cultural preservation of rural and urban Texas underlies her faith-driven drive to serve community. In the past two years she has teamed with co-founder, Chris Westall of La Grange, in an organizational endeavor for Colorado Valley Dark-Sky Explorers (CVDExplorers) to preserve the remaining dark skies of south central Texas through educational and public advocacy initiatives along with progressive marketing of the ecological tourism opportunities. Lennie is affirmed in her belief that astronomical interest serve to renew spirit, healing and nurturing for herself, family, guests, friends and community.

The Chris Westall and Lennie Brown interview…

Clayton: How did you first become interested in astronomy?

Lennie: Once upon a time, a long long time ago, one could see the stars in what is now called “The Galleria Area” where I grew up in Houston. It was on my daddy’s lap, bundled with my brother, where he introduced us to the awe of celestial creation. Everywhere we traveled, the night sky provided us with a navigational bearing point and seasonal calendar. Without telescopes or star charts it was a way of life. When The Museum of Natural Science obtained a Planetarium and nearby NASA landed a man on the Moon, it set in motion a higher interest in natural order that I willingly abide.

Clayton: Do you think that by becoming involved in astronomy, it has somehow changed a direction in your life?

Chris: Without question. Being an avid stargazer and coming from an urban area to now living under dark rural skies, has given me a much greater appreciation of the “value” of the night sky; and this has been a major inspiration to me to, not only take every opportunity to explore it but also, impress upon others the importance of its legacy and need for safeguarding. I am definitely not the “activist-type” by any stretch, but my reverence for the stars has propelled me into a public role that I typically wouldn’t gravitate toward. So this is a path I never anticipated being on, but very glad I am.

Clayton: What was the first glimmer-thought of starting a new astronomy club in central Texas? Did you and Chris plan this as a team?

Lennie: Inspired by a family man, Chris Westall, with knowledge (astronomy), tools (telescopes, binoculars, laser lights, PowerPoint presentations, books, etc.), an accomplished communicator/educator and a great sense of adventure and humor, along with an opportunity to enrich my Bed and Breakfast Event Facility with educational entertainment consistent with my business mission, it was an opportunity ready to happen.

Yes, as a strategic planning team with a passion for enjoying the night sky, Chris and I are cultivating an astronomy club in partnership with related groups, institutions and individuals that provide a meaningful experience for everyone we have been associated with. It’s become an “extended family” for me. Sharing the night sky bonds God’s people in a kindly way.

Clayton: You seem to be very proactive in trying to save our night skies from our ever encroaching light pollution. How and why the passion in this pursuit?

Chris: Having lived most of my life in Houston and Austin, I immediately realized how lucky I was to be living right under some pretty dark skies in and around La Grange. But also realizing that these skies will eventually go the way of the buffalo if people/communities don’t change some habits. So right now there exists a window of opportunity for this region to try to control its own destiny, but until now no one was sounding the call. It was a natural fit for our group.

Clayton: Tell us a bit about your Bed and Breakfast and how it tied in to the new astronomy club?

Lennie: TEXANA Trails and Lodge www.texanatrailslodge.com Si habla Espanol.

In 1834 when Texas was Mexico….an American Canadian family signed on as colonist, moved and built a substantial “hacienda” on a scenic hilltop over looking the Colorado River valley near present-day La Grange, located between Houston, Austin and San Antonio. This site was a proposed site for the permanent capitol of the Republic of Texas, fortunately losing out to Waterloo/Austin (otherwise Texana would be seriously struggling for a piece of dark sky!). My Dancy Brown family, also colonist, planters and officials of The Republic of Texas, enjoyed a relationship with the Brookfield Evans family acquiring the historic property as an investment and family retreat in 1893.

Six generations later, the twenty-five acre ranch site with the 1835 Stone House and adjacent 1850 Stone Stable/Guest House (its grounds surrounded by an ancient stone defense wall) provide extraordinary lodging and event facilities for individuals and group stays. The 1835 Stone House is a large, classic, well-appointed, four bedrooms, two bath, semiformal residential setting with a fully-equipped kitchen, laundry, butler’s pantry and porches that accommodates 8 to 10 lodging guests. Additionally, the two bedroom, two bath, kitchen/dining/study/great room, patio and porch is “rustico-rancho” furnished. The 1850 Stone Stable accommodates 2-5 lodging guest for a total of 10-15 lodging guests. Event venues utilizing the wonderful mix of indoor and outdoor spaces are suited for eclectic-styled, event social settings for 20 to 150 guests. Our support services include food service, period Vaquero-dressed Wait Staff, Educational Entertainment including Lecture Studies, Cultural Heritage and Eco Tours, Live Music, Spa and Spiritual Retreats and last not least…. Night Sky and Site Tours.

We produce several of our own annual public events including our STAR PARTIES held the July 4th weekend (Natural Sky Fireworks!), Outdoor Fandango’s, Worship and Study Retreats and Period Themed Balls.

Clayton: Are any of your family or neighbors interested in your hobby? Do they observe too?

Chris: My kids (8 and 5) have shown some interest that may grow as they get older. As for the rest of my family, no one has really developed anything more than a passing curiosity in stargazing. As for my neighbors/community, there seems to be a pretty strong interest as the numbers for our events will attest, but unfortunately has not translated into many new members; despite no membership dues and, more importantly, having the most essential ingredient right under (or shall I say over) our noses. It’s been a bit perplexing as we’d certainly like to continue to grow as a group and do more things.

Clayton: I know that both of you are visual observers…What’s your attraction to the night skies? Got a favorite object?

Chris: There are very few things that get me as jazzed as seeing a distant object “live” in my telescope (or at least what it looked like as much as several million years ago). Stargazing has had such a huge impact on my overall perspective on the human condition, which for me is as much a fascinating as it is essential component of the experience. And one I wish more people would take the time to embrace.

As for favorite objects, when I first started stargazing I was in Big Bend in late Spring and this hugely bright object came up from the horizon and I had no idea what it was at the time, so it felt like I was discovering something no one had seen before. It turned out to be Omega Centauri, so OC will always have a special place in my heart for that exhilarating experience. My newest favorite object is the Eskimo Nebula, which I recently saw for the first time and thought was very cool, especially being able to see the white dwarf at the center.

Lennie: My attraction is the natural beauty, mysteries and cultural significance of the cosmic universe we see in our dark sky and the peace it gives me when I connect with it. It inspires me to celebrate this blessing by sharing it in communion with others. My favorite objects are the Pleiades and the vast and fascinating variety of planetary nebulas.

Clayton: How would you like to see your own astronomy grow? What’s new for you and the CVDExplorers?

Chris: Personally, most of my observing since the group started has been in an outreach capacity which I like very much, but has also prevented me from doing more intensive observing and being able to check off some of the objects on my personal observing lists. But those DSOs aren’t going anywhere, so I’ll get to them eventually. As for the CVDExplorers, we have launched the Fayette County Dark-Sky Initiative to educate our community about responsible outdoor lighting and are part of a tourism committee to promote our region as a dark-sky destination. I also write a monthly column on all things astronomy for our local paper.

One thing I would love to organize in the future is a mini-TSP at one or our darkest locations in the region. I’m thinking a 2-3 night event that, although not quite as dark as West Texas, would be much closer and more convenient for a lot of people. We are within an hour+ drive of 3 metropolitan and 2 micropolitan areas that are home to about 10 million people, so I think the idea has some potential.

Lennie: Besides the ecotourism and dark-sky advocacy work (which suits my CVDExplorer nickname “LBJuxtapostion”), I continue to enjoy and develop children’s astronomy programming as a way of “learning-by-teaching” the basic location of celestial objects. I’ve become “Ms. Lennie – the Social Science Enrichment Teacher” in the local education settings. Now that I have a quality pair of binoculars (and lusting for a tabletop mirrored viewer for it), the CVDExplorers' 8-inch Dobsonian Meade loaner scope, a 1960’s vintage Sears Japanese-made refractor and a newer CVDE 6-inch Meade equatorial reflector loaner scope clustering in my already eclectically-furnished B & B, I’m posed and ready for an astronomical benefactor to adopt me!

Clayton: I’d like to know a little about your telescope(s).

Chris: Well, I’m a dob guy all the way and after cutting my teeth for a decade with an 8” Meade, I’m now up to a 12” Orion push-to dob. Nothing fancy, but it gets the job done. I also regularly bring out my 20x80 binocs on a parallelogram mount that together with my scope, cover most of the bases. Since we started this group, we have had at least a half-dozen telescopes donated to us that we make available as loaners but also get to use, so we have a little bit of everything in the 2-8” reflector/refractor categories as well.

Clayton: It seems in recent years that the younger people are not that interested in amateur astronomy, or any of the sciences. Are you attaining any young club members? How can we turn this around?

Lennie: “How?” you ask….education, education, education made engaging, simple but intriguingly accessible to casual learners, interlaced with opportunities to do it themselves and with their friends and family. The schools are doing a better job today accessing students to this field of study from the classroom but the young people want it in their hand at night. The new phone apps are holding great interest, the Hubble photographs are wowing just about everyone at any age. For the young people who camp, hunt and enjoy time outside at night… they are interested and love it when someone among them shares information about what they are seeing.

Our group frequently sees elementary through middle school people at our public star parties and enjoy giving presentations/demonstrations/dark-sky tours to groups at their location or one of ours, including… sleepovers! The good news: They are catching the fever for it… it becomes a hobby among many others that young people have so many choices in. They are not lost forever… they come back to it like many do later in life.

Clayton: Do you have any helpful advice to pass on to observers just starting out in astronomy?

Chris: Yes- call you! Seriously though, this is not a hobby that is necessarily easy or cheap and I think that works against it (in our modern society) in terms of attracting and sustaining enthusiasts. But I would tell someone starting out to just take their time to learn the night sky before getting a telescope, but that it’s going to take a little desire and effort to get over that hump. In the alternative, if they don’t want to mess with that learning curve (and many don’t) and have a little extra cash, then plunk down for a go-to and let technology do the work for you. Hey, if it gets you looking up I guess it really doesn’t matter how you got there. Just don’t do it alone, find like-minded people and share your new passion.

Clayton: Thanks Chris and Lennie for taking the time to share your interest and thoughts within our HAS newsletter, the GuideStar. We wish you luck with all of your astronomy interests. Please come visit our society when in the Houston area, we’d love to see you.

Clear skies always!

Chris: Thanks Clayton. I appreciate the interest (you haven’t run out of people to interview, have you?). ;-)

Lennie: Vaya con Dios, amigo! Mi casa es su casa. Mi estrellas es su estrellas.

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