Footnotes in Texas History
He Gave Us the Stars
An eccentric banker funded the McDonald Observatory against family wishes

IMAGE: Collage source photos courtesy McDonald Observatory

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Our video shows how McDonald Observatory grants researchers and visitors access to the cosmos.

In 1926 a bachelor banker died in Paris, Texas—a rich bachelor banker, that is. His estate was worth $1.2 million. Today that would be about $17.6 million. In his will the banker left 90% of his money to the University of Texas to buy a telescope and build an observatory.

The banker’s name was William Johnson McDonald (no connection to the famous hamburger chain).

McDonald’s relatives didn’t like him leaving all that money for a telescope. They believed that anyone who would do such a thing must not have all the pickets in his fence, so they sued to keep the money in the family.

Fortunately for UT, McDonald had shared his telescope dream with his barber, telling him that astronomy was a young science. He told the barber he hoped that “one day a telescope would be built that would allow astronomers to see the gold-plated streets of heaven.”

McDonald was also known to be an amateur scientist. Consequently, a jury had little trouble believing that his bequest was the product of a sane mind. Upon appeal, his relatives received more than they were given originally, but UT still ended up with about $800,000—$11.8 million today.

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Listen to author W.F. Strong read his story about the origins of the McDonald Observatory.

Once the university had the money, it had to go shopping for a mountain on which to build an observatory. That must have been fun. Mountain shopping has got to be something you get to do only once or twice in a lifetime. Luckily the university’s representatives were able to shop in the Davis Mountains, which harbored some of the finest stargazing potential in North America.

After driving several thousand miles around the region, inspecting numerous sites for altitude, dark skies, cloudless nights and poor prospects for rain, they found what they were looking for. It had no official name, but the locals called it Flat Top Mountain. It was part of a ranch perfectly named for West Texas: The U Up and U Down Ranch.

University of Texas President Harry Benedict wrote a letter to Violet Locke McIvor, owner of that mountain. He told her of McDonald’s gift and of the university’s great need for a mountain to put an observatory on. Benedict informed McIvor that her mountain was ideally suited for such a facility and that “optical tests already made showed that the Davis Mountains region was the best in Texas, perhaps the best in the United States, for astronomical purposes.” He asked her if she might consider giving her mountain to science.

McIvor might have surprised Benedict when she agreed. She wrote back almost immediately and gave UT 200 acres, the entire top of the mountain, which was renamed Mount Locke in honor of McIvor’s grandfather, G.S. Locke, who founded the ranch. She also gave the university enough land to build a road to the summit. The resulting highway, Spur 78, is still the highest highway in Texas.

Today UT’s McDonald Observatory sits majestically atop Mount Locke. It is one of the world’s leading centers for astronomical research. As William McDonald predicted, his gift has given us the heavens themselves.

W.F. Strong is a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and first wrote this story for Texas Standard.

TAGS: Footnotes in Texas History, History, Science

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