The sun, moon and stars — from a Chautauqua backyard

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Photos and cutlines provided by Ted Wolfe.

There is a steady stream of passersby and bicyclists along the street in front of Ted Wolfe’s Chautauqua porch. A wave or greeting occasionally punctuates our conversation. Thoroughly relaxed in his familiar wicker chair, Wolfe, 77, is a man clearly comfortable in his own skin. He channels a bit of James Stewart with his laconic style. Retired for nearly 20 years from a successful corporate career as a marketing executive and board member, he has been able to indulge a number of passions, including astrophotography. Introduced to the region when he joined Welch’s corporate offices in Westfield, N.Y., Wolfe held Chautauqua dear, even as his career moved him elsewhere. He has photographed the sun many times from his Chautauqua backyard.

Chautauqua Observatory

I was just in the backyard setting up the solar telescope, taking some shots. Daytime photography of the sun is pretty good here [in Chautauqua], actually. Look at the blue daytime sky, how clear it is. We get some really great daytime skies here. It precludes the concern for light pollution. What I do is, I will spend a couple of months, when I have the time, photographing the sun here. …

Here at Chautauqua, I cut a hole in the garage, set up a computer down in the garage. You cannot get that focus on a computer with sunlight on it. You have to have a dark environment, and that is the purpose the garage serves. Margaret Geller was here in a program a few years ago; she is an astrophysicist with the [Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics]. I had an exhibit at Hultquist Center at the time. We reached out to her, and she came over and gave an impromptu talk based on my photographs. That was special. I do my night photography mostly from a telescope set up on a golf course in Naples [Fla.]. It is 165 feet away from my computer. I use a charge-coupled device camera. I think they were developed for cardiologists, who look for dim things in dark places. Astronomers said, “Wait, that’s what we do for a living!”

I served in a development role here [at the Institution], and later on the board of trustees, ending around 10 years ago. Toward the end of my tenure, I had a real schedule conflict: There was going to be a close approach of Mars at the same time my last board meeting was scheduled. I had the chance to be involved in photographing the Mars approach. (Parenthetically, though there is often jealousy and tension between amateurs and professionals in photography, this is not the case in astrophotography.) So the staff at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers [Fla.], near my winter home in Naples, invited me to come down and photograph the Mars approach for them and to do the processing for them, too. So I couldn’t give up this chance and went down and did these things for them. I came back to Chautauqua a couple of weeks later, walking down the street, and one of the board members beckoned me over. “You just got back, didn’t you? We let Scott McVay [immediate past president of the Institution] go.”

Stars and Photographs

I do some exhibiting, and we now have an exhibit called “Journey to the Sun,” currently playing at the Miami [Science Museum]. I’ll bet 80 or 90 percent of all the shots in this exhibit came from here in Chautauqua. A few years ago, I had a 20-month, one-man show at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral [Fla.]. It’s the longest-running amateur photo exhibit ever to run there. The NASA team that came to the Institution during Week One did a good job, I thought. NASA and the federal space program are under pressure now; different presidents feel different levels of passion about space discovery.

Now there is a trend toward supersonic commercial flight. If you or I flew from Boston to [Tokyo Narita Airport] now, it would take 14 hours. It would take two-and-a-half hours supersonic. Companies like Boeing [Co.] that are investigating this realize their pilots would effectively be astronauts. They would have to understand how to enter and exit the atmosphere. NASA understands they are training these future pilots. We will also see mining of the asteroids; that is clearly on the agenda. So in many ways, the commercialization of space is well underway.

I got my interest in space photography while I was working with [Procter & Gamble Co.] in Cincinnati. One June night, my wife and I were walking in a big public park there, Ault Park. We were in our 20s — no kids yet. A group of people had their telescopes out, and my wife said, “Why don’t we just stop and see what they are doing?” I went over to a person and said, “You probably can’t see anything with a small telescope.” I was skeptical, but my wife persisted. So we checked it out more closely. They were looking at Saturn that night. If you haven’t seen Saturn through a telescope, make sure you do it. Here’s this gold ball sitting in a gold ring, clear as a bell. I was amazed. I told myself, “I must understand more about this.” It was inspirational, looking at and thinking about something different than I was seeing and touching. That started it all with me.

Coming to Chautauqua

It was in the late ’60s that I got my start in this area. I moved here to take a job with Welch’s, in Westfield. I did not previously know about Chautauqua. We lived in Lakewood, N.Y. I had come from [P&G], so many of my contemporaries were living in big metro areas like New York City. I’d run into them somewhere and they’d say, “Tell me again, the place you work at — you have a 30-minute drive, and there’s only one light, and you go by a beautiful lake? That’s impossible, you’re lying to us.” Those guys were on the train into [New York City], trying to do the crossword; they had no life to compare to mine.

And yet it was extremely difficult to recruit talented staff to come to this area to live 12 months of the year. God bless Tom [Becker] and the year-round staff at the Institution who do it. We had jobs at Welch’s for a heck of a lot of money that were open for sometimes as long as two years. We developed a unique approach to recruiting. One of the most effective ways was to only recruit from the middle of May to the middle of September, when the weather was right. We would take the historical ferry across from Stow to Bemus Point. We would have dinner at the [Ye Hare ‘n Hounds Inn] there. Chautauqua was a prime place to show off to recruits. We would find something [on the grounds] to show off when they were here. We would stress that there was a wide area where they could live and still have only a 30-minute commute to work. Erie [Pa.] was part of that; we had lots of people living in Westfield, too — a nice town. But we did have people who would come in for one season and be gone. I had one woman call me at home at one o’clock in the morning. She and her family had been here for two years. She was crying. She said, “You never told me there were no department stores in the area!” When we moved the company to Boston — a young person’s mecca, with all the universities in the area — Welch’s built a tremendous staff very quickly. Don’t get me wrong; I love this area. I raised my kids here. They would work on the grounds in different jobs. A couple of them have become quite active here. But still, it was tough to recruit for Welch’s.

When I retired, we decided to spend the winter in Naples and bought a lot in Chautauqua and built here. I remember not long after we arrived, I overheard a conversation on the street. It was early in the season. One Chautauquan greeted another and asked when she had arrived. Her friend said, “I just got here. I don’t even know who died yet.”