Remembering Dr. Shlanta

By Ruth Justis, Daily Independent

Dr. Alex Shlanta pauses for a photo during a bike ride.

Family and friends are mourning the loss of a bright star in the firmament of the Indian Wells Valley. Dr. Alexis "Alex" Shlanta lost his battle with cancer on Sunday, June 29.

Whether he was a co-worker, teacher, fellow musician, running mate, neighbor, or friend, Alex Shlanta touched the lives of all who knew him. Family and friends alike find the loss devastating.

Judy Martin attended Grace Lutheran Church with the Shlanta family. "Alex had a lot to be proud about," said Judy, "including the fact that he had a Ph.D. But I found him to be humble rather than haughty about his accomplishments. I'd known him for several years before I found out that he was Dr. Alex Shlanta."

His experiences were many and varied, beginning with a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1955 to 1959, where he attained the rank of Sergeant.

Alex graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1962, with a bachelor's degree in math and physics. He was a physicist on the Apollo Lunar Project with North American Aviation and Schelleger Research Labs while at UTEP.

He completed his master's degree at UTEP in 1965, with a specialization in astrophysics and took further graduate studies in astrogeophysics at Colorado University.

He served as assistant professor of Physics at Buena Vista College, Storm Lake, Iowa, in 1966 and 1967.

His doctorate degree was completed in Physics (Experimental Atmospheric Physics specialization) in 1972. He worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on high altitude stratospheric measurements in 1972-1973.

In 1973, Alex came to China Lake as a Physicist. He retired in 1997, leaving behind 265 published reports, open literature and conference proceedings concerning his work on missiles and rockets.

Following his retirement, he became an Adjunct Professor at Cerro Coso, teaching astronomy and meteorology. His legacy there includes the Dr. Alex Shlanta Astronomical Observatory.

"Dr. Alex Shlanta represented the best in adjunct faculty teaching, campuswide leadership, and commitment to the community," said Rachel Winston of the Cerro Coso Mathematics Faculty. "He was dedicated to students and supportive of faculty, staff, and the administration. His efforts in creating Cerro Coso's astronomy program extended well beyond our college campus. It was an honor to work with him and he will be sorely missed."

Joann Handeland, Director of Information, Development and Alumni Relations at Cerro Coso said it this way. "We at Cerro Coso have lost a wonderful colleague and friend. Dr. Alex Shlanta was the driving force behind the Astronomical Observatory at Cerro Coso Community College in Ridgecrest. He will be greatly missed by the Cerro Coso family of friends."

The Dr. Alex Shlanta Astronomical Observatory was dedicated in May 2006 and named in honor of the man whose dedication, management and unfailing efforts made it possible.

Work on the Observatory commenced in 1999. Presently, there are 19 telescopes and 8 pairs of binoculars that are housed in the 4 observation domes and 3 storage areas within the observatory compound. The observatory has been developed as a hands-on "teaching astronomical observatory" and is used by Astronomy and Physical Science Lab classes at the College. This observatory provides a unique experience for the students at the College as most introductory college astronomy lab classes are taught only using interactive computer systems.

The observatory is used as a community asset, as well as the site for star parties for local youth groups, boy scouts, cub scouts, girl scouts, middle school science students, and 3rd, 5th, and 6th grade students.

"What can I say about Alex?" asked fellow instructor John Stenger-Smith. "Alex spearheaded the development of the Astronomical Observatory, which would make every single four-year university in the entire United States jealous. Most astronomy students at universities don't get access to telescopes like ours until they reach graduate school. Alex developed all this, with help from others, on a minimal budget, with perspiration, one-sided pressure sensitive tape and saliva (that's sweat, duct tape and spit). It was a wonderful feeling for us in the science department to see this project develop from scratch, to see it grow, to see students delight in seeing features in the sky that very few of us humans ever get to see and fewer still get to see under high magnification. This makes us feel slightly less guilty about stealing Alex from the Math Department," John said.

"Alex truly cared about his students and his co-workers. He always came to the support of his fellow faculty and offered words of encouragement when the college was going through difficult times, and he was very kind and helpful to the past and present science department chairs — by getting his equipment requests in, adding extra students to his classes, which allowed us to run low enrollment upper-division classes," John said.

Alex showed another facet of his personality with his musical ability. He regularly performed with his clarinet in local concerts and at Grace Lutheran Church.

"On the Sunday after we were told that Alex had cancer and would undergo serious surgery inside his mouth, I lingered after our first service at Grace Lutheran to listen to him practicing his clarinet for second service. He was alone in the band area and I don't think he was aware of my presence. While Alex always played with great skill, his music on this day was especially sweet because he knew, as I did, that this could well be the last time he would play. It has become one of my fondest memories of him," said Judy Martin.

Mike Stringham knew Alex from a totally different perspective. Staying physically fit by running and riding his bicycle was a part of his everyday life.

"I met Alex in the late '70s at the gym on the base. Lots of people went to the gym at lunch time to exercise, and he and I would meet to run together. We had lots in common, like college degrees in the same technical areas, interest in history and philosophy, as well as running. We would run in any type of weather: 110 degrees, wind or cold. For several years in addition to lunch time running we would meet very early on Saturday mornings, before it got too hot, and run from Ridgecrest to Inyokern and back along the railroad tracks just north of Inyokern Road. That was usually 14 miles. One time, right after the first Gulf War, when we were running this route, he was stopped by the China Lake police and questioned, because they said he looked like an Arab," Mike said.

"We ran in races that were held all through the year in Ridgecrest. He and I ran at about the same pace, so were often together during the race. However, if we were running even and the finish line was in sight I knew that he could out run me. He could tap his Marine training and toughness and gut out a pace I couldn't sustain. Once a Marine always a Marine.

"My wife, Christa, and I spent many happy hours socializing with Alex and Sondra. We participated in Marriage Encounter with them which enriched us all. For several years we spent a week at San Clemente beach with them and several other Ridgecrest families camping out, swimming in the ocean and eating picnics daily. Dinner and games at the Stringham's or Shlanta's was frequent. Dinner always took a long time, because Alex ate slowly. He said that while he was in the Marine Corps he had to bolt his food and that when he got out he vowed to never be in a hurry at a meal. He never was," Mike said.

Daily Independent
Mon Jul 07, 2008, 04:06 PM