Telescope for Wayne State magnifies ties to late friend

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Donor Russ Carroll and Anne Zowada, Dan’s widow, inside the observatory at the dedication party.

Russ Carroll was a bit above it all and Dan Zowada was more down to Earth, but they shared an interest in the stars, and the two kids like that in a class will always form their own constellation.

They lived in Rochester, which was too busy and bright even 40 years ago to make for good gazing through their telescopes. So they found a woods seven or eight miles north of town where they could look up and see enough to make them want to see more.

As high school ended, they took separate paths. Carroll, who is brilliant, went mostly west. Zowada, who was creative, stayed put.

Then three years and two weeks ago, Zowada died — which is where the rest of the story begins.

The late Dan Zowada is the namesake of Wayne State University’s observatory.

It's a story that continues today in the heart of Detroit, at Wayne State University, and in the most remote part of New Mexico, near a community called Rodeo with a population of 101.

At Wayne State, an astronomy professor or a student can tap coordinates into a computer. In southwest New Mexico, an area renowned to astronomers for its blissfully dark skies, the roof of a 12 ½-foot-wide white dome will roll back and a 20-inch PlaneWave robotic telescope will point itself toward a spot in the universe billions of light years away.

If you share the faith that Zowada always had and Carroll found, you could say it's peering into the heavens.

Zowada was 54 when his life ended. The Dan Zowada Memorial Observatory lets practiced eyes search for hints to where the universe began.

Through a family foundation built on the proceeds of his technological and business wisdom, Carroll spent $250,000 to buy 40 acres of prime stargazing real estate, an existing dome and an upgraded scope.

An image of the Coma Cluster of galaxies taken from the Zowada observatory was NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day on March 26.

For the university, it's a staggering improvement, a detour around humidity and clouds and the relentless city lights. It's the difference between applying humbly for rare hours on someone else's telescope and having full-time access to a stellar piece of equipment.

For Carroll, 57, it's a chance to honor someone he didn't fully appreciate until it was too late to say thank you.

"There are people in the world who deserve praise and to be lifted up," Carroll says from his home near San Diego, "and they're the last people in the world we do that for."

Athletes, sure. Entertainers. The occasional tycoon. But a roundish, good-natured, harmonica-playing, drone-flying 3-D animator from Troy with a taste for Three Stooges hijinks and low-limit poker?

He's easy to overlook until you check Facebook one day and find out he's gone.

The clamshell-style observatory is outlined against the night sky near Rodeo, New Mexico.

Carroll and Zowada — pronounced Zo-WADD-uh — met in second grade, but didn't become close until junior high school. Carroll had built a telescope with an older brother and Zowada had built one with his dad, they both liked science fiction, and that was a solid enough base for a friendship.

"He wore glasses and had a funny last name. These are not the things that go unnoticed when you are a kid," Carroll says. But he was friendly to everyone, and something in his nature made others friendly in return: "Nobody hates a golden retriever."

Carroll concedes that he could be more prickly.

As a Rochester High sophomore, he was taking astronomy and physics classes at Oakland University. By 16, he'd been granted telescope time at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

At 18, he made and published a paper on an actual discovery, X-rays emanating from two closely orbiting stars that were nearly a million times stronger than they should have been.

"It's a bad combination," he says, "to have some intelligence and to use that to hurt people." Not that he was deliberately mean, he says; he simply didn't care to consider  other people's feelings.

Zowada, for instance, was a committed Christian. Carroll couldn't see a scientific basis for religion, so he would challenge his friend, "trying to prove to him his beliefs were crazy."

Zowada held on to them anyway, for as long as he lived.

The Horsehead Nebula, viewed through Wayne State's new telescope, is a dark cloud of gas and dust where star formation is taking place.

He was always first in line to help with Oktoberfest at Our Shepherd Lutheran Church in Birmingham, and easy to spot there with a smile on his face and a bratwurst in his beer.

"Everything about him was comic," says close friend Franklin Dohanyos of Waterford, who met him at Our Shepherd. The two of them went through a Monty Python phase, but always circled back to the Stooges, with Zowada as Curly and Dohanyos answering as Shemp:

"Hey, Jasper, what comes after 75?"


"That's the spirit!"

Anne Zowada would shake her head. Men and their toys: drones, boats, cameras. Men being boys.

"He had a great smile," she says. That's what jumped out at her from his profile on eHarmony 15 years ago — that, and his faith. "My faith is important to me, too. There was a lot of connection there."

Her husband drove Chrysler Sebring convertibles, a white one and then silver, and he'd drop the top on a clear night and tell her what they were looking at.

They were planning to go to Kentucky for an unimpeded view of the total solar eclipse in March 2016. He'd made reservations. But then suddenly he didn't feel right, as though something was leeching away his usually boundless enthusiasm.

The care at Karmanos Cancer Institute was excellent, Anne says, but sometimes the disease wins. Only 2,300 Americans each year are diagnosed with penile cancer. Her husband was a casualty.

Carroll and Zowada had reconnected by then, sort of. Carroll tracked him down on Facebook, which Zowada used infrequently.

"It was, 'Hey, happy birthday,'" he says. "Hey, happy birthday again."

Then: Hey, Dan died.

Carroll was stricken. "Everything else doesn't exist when I'm working on a project," he explains, and for three-plus decades, he'd been doing projects nonstop.

The sky was vibrant at the dedication stargazing party for the Dan Zowada Memorial Observatory.

College was not among them. He had to fly back from a research lab in California to attend his high school graduation, and freshman-level courses seemed like a waste of time.

He worked with supercomputers, did some computer graphics and ran a real estate sales training company. He cashed out of the training company, bought a tech firm that helps mid-level companies sell products online, improved it, and then sold much of his stock to a private equity group.

Semi-retired, he still likes to look upward, and when Zowada died, he started looking back.

"I had a lot of clarity on who he was as a person at that moment," he says.

Over the years, he embraced Christianity, and he credits Zowada with laying the groundwork. He has tried to be more patient and approachable, and that's Zowada, too.

"That's why I built this observatory," he says.

The official dedication was on site in October, more than 4,100 feet above sea level, with a dinner afterward at a reptile museum. Anne Zowada was there, as were some of Dan's high school friends and a dean from Wayne State, which had shown the need, the enthusiasm and the staff Carroll was looking for when he chose a recipient.

The Dumbbell Nebula, as seen through the Zowada Observatory, is a planetary nebula -- an object formed at the end of a star’s life when the outer layers of the stars get blown off, creating the vivid colors and leaving a small, dense white dwarf at the center.  This will eventually happen to our sun (in about 4.5 billion years’ time).

WSU has two telescopes atop its physics building, but "we were just struggling by," says associate professor Edward Cackett. Between light pollution and the weather, conditions were so typically compromised that students in introductory classes were simply assigned to study the sun.

Cackett's research focuses on black holes and neutron stars, "the densest objects up there." He's gone from having a few nights of observatory time each year to charting changes night by night through the dry New Mexico air.

With astronomy, Carroll says, it can be hard to tell what's usable from what's merely interesting.

What he knows for certain is that when he stares deep into a clear night sky, "It makes me feel like part of the universe" — and it makes him feel like his friend is a part of it with him.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn