The third Third Charles Butterworth Award

In October 2011 the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) held its centennial celebration in Boston at the Woburn Hilton. It was the culmination of 100 years of collecting and archiving variable star data for the scientific community, and for several staff members and me, the realization of almost two years of planning. By all accounts the centenary was a success and on the final night of the meeting I found myself sitting at a banquet table surrounded by friends and co-workers, nearly exhausted but very satisfied.

Traditionally, various awards are given out prior to the meal being served and this evening was no exception. I was very happy to have been responsible for recognizing one of the AAVSO’s most outstanding volunteers, Tom Bretl, that evening. Tom is a remarkable and conscientious worker who has become the most prolific member of the charts and sequences team. I was proud to have Tom and his wife sitting at the table with my wife and I.

Right after Tom had returned to the table from receiving his award, and the applause began to fade, AAVSO Director, Arne Henden, introduced John Toone from the British Astronomical Association. John started talking about the great strides made in the last ten years, standardizing variable star charts and sequences for observers around the world and how he and a few other key people had been largely responsible for the improvements and had set the standard for the next one hundred years. It was a story I was very familiar with. I had worked closely with John and a small group of people for years establishing guidelines for creating variable star comparison sequences and producing thousands of new charts for observers. And now as John was speaking it dawned on me that he was about to present an award for chart making and I didn’t know who the award was for. How could they do that? Why would they exclude me from a discussion about recognizing one of our team for their contributions?

As he began to rattle off the list of achievements and benchmarks I realized he was talking about me! Those dirty dogs had conspired to give me an award and managed to keep it a complete secret. I was stunned, surprised, embarrassed, proud, joyful and sad all at once. The emotions of the moment got the best of me and could feel myself beginning to cry. I asked Irene for some Kleenex and said, “Quickly, please… I can’t go up there crying in front of everyone!”  

I barely remember the walk to the podium or the walk back to my seat. I do remember that I was unable to say anything when John presented me with the Third Charles Butterworth Award ever awarded by the Variable Star Section of the BAA. Arne even quipped, “in all these years I’ve never seen Mike at a loss for words,” much to the crowd’s delight.

The plaque itself is a remarkable work of art, and the thoughtfulness that went into designing it made it even more beautiful and personal. The front side is a replica of a variable star chart of my favorite variable star, IW Andromedae. It has the title, cardinal directions and border hand painted in silver on a black slate tablet. The stars are gemstones of varying sizes set in holes drilled to represent with remarkable accuracy the brightness of the stars in the field of view and the comparison stars in the sequence have been hand labeled in silver paint also. It is stunning.

The original Third Charles Butterworth Award in 2011

The back is hand engraved and reads, “This the third Charles Butterworth Award was presented to Mike Simonsen on 8th October 2011 by the Variable Star Section of the British Astronomical Association in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of charts and sequences.”

Another facet of this story is my personal ties to the other two recipients of the award. Gary Poyner, one of the leading visual observers in the world and a mentor and good friend was the first recipient and a few years later, another mentor and friend of mine, Arne Henden, who is also my boss and Director of the AAVSO, received the second Charles Butterworth Award.

I was honored and deeply moved to receive it, and I will always cherish this award, which makes the next part of this story very hard to tell.

A Thanksgiving tradition in our house is for Irene to run out on Thanksgiving morning and buy a copy of all the newspapers, which on this day each year are stuffed with circulars, catalogs and advertisements for sales that will begin the next morning on the biggest shopping day in America, Black Friday. Then she usually goes through them all page by page while I watch football on television, another Thanksgiving tradition here. I had made a good-sized turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and all the trimmings, and Irene’s father had joined us for the feast. Some time after the first game, when the dinner dishes had been put away, and before we began on round two of the feast, open-faced turkey sandwiches with gravy, I brought out the Butterworth plaque to show my father-in-law. He admired its craftsmanship and pretended to be interested as I explained all the details behind the graphics and citation, then we went back to watching football on the TV while Irene flipped though several hundred pages of advertisements.

I didn’t give the plaque another thought until a week later when I went to retrieve it from the living room coffee table where I had last seen it on Thanksgiving and it wasn’t there. I looked all over the house, even in places I knew it couldn’t be, just to know I had looked everywhere, and then a horrible sinking feeling came over me as I deduced what had most likely been the undignified end to my special hand crafted plaque. In the mass of newspapers and advertisements left on the table and strewn about the living room the Butterworth Award had gotten buried or mixed in with the mess and the week after Thanksgiving it had gone out to the curb with the trash. It was by now buried under several feet of garbage in a landfill somewhere never to be seen again. I cried out loud at the loss.

Irene felt bad, I was distraught and the Butterworth was gone. I had taken several close up detailed pictures of it, intending to put a picture of the front and back in a two-slot picture frame for my office in Cambridge, but the place of honor I had selected for the genuine article laid bare for a long time, before I covered it up with a poster and tried to forget the tragic loss. Eventually, I did hang the picture frame of the Butterworth in my office at AAVSO headquarters, but I didn’t tell anyone about the fate of the plaque. It simply hurt too much to talk about and I was too embarrassed to ask the BAA if there was any way I could have another one made. It became a sore spot for Irene and I also. I tried not to blame her for the loss, even though deep down I did hold her at least partially responsible, and she resented me blaming her for the loss when it was I who apparently threw it in the trash, not her. We went on like this for a year. When Thanksgiving came around in 2012 it dredged up all the feeling of loss all over again, and by mid-December I had gathered up enough courage and put aside my embarrassment to write John Toone and the BAAVSS Director, Roger Pickard, to ask if there was any way a replacement could be made. They replied within a day saying that a replica could be made and that it would cost approximately £75 plus postage and would take a couple months to make. I was ecstatic.

February 4, 2013 I received word the plaque was finished and ready to be shipped. I simply had to make arrangements to pay for the plaque and shipping costs, which I did that same day. It ended up costing me around $150.00 US, but it was worth every penny. I couldn’t wait for it to get here.

On February 8th the packaged arrived. I knew it was the plaque. It was a heavy cardboard envelope from the UK. What else could it be? I rushed up to the house from the mailbox and cut open the packaging. As I pulled the plaque from inside the envelope I could feel through the bubble wrap that something was not right. My heart sank. I peeled away the packing and to my utter dismay found the plaque broken into several pieces with shards and dust and little gemstones loose inside the bubble wrap. For the third time the Charles Butterworth Award caused a lump in my throat and made my eyes tear up.

The second Third Charles Butterworth Award shattered
I immediately notified Roger, John and Alan, the artisan who had made the first two plaques. I tried to glue the pieces together but nothing I had on hand worked on the natural stone. Alan replied a day later that the shipment had been insured and said that he could make yet another plaque and would ship it in a more robust package from the UK next time. I couldn’t imagine what could go wrong the next time, but I tried not to get my hopes up, since by this time I was feeling genuinely cursed.

March 18th I was in Cambridge for meetings and the upcoming DSLR Manual Workshop. At 5:30 PM I got a call on my cell phone, but didn’t pick it up because I was out to dinner with AAVSO Secretary, Gary Walker, and I don’t like to interrupt face-to-face conversations by answering the phone. When I got back to headquarters I saw I had a voice mail and there was an IM message from Irene saying, “I think the Butterworth plaque came in the mail!” So I called Irene. The phone rang several times before she answered, somewhat out of breath. “Is it the plaque?” I asked without even saying hello. “ I don’t know. I didn’t open it,” she said, still breathless.
“Can you open it?” I asked. “Right now?” she replied.
“I’m on the treadmill. Can I call you back later?”

Irene has her priorities, and I suppose she figured I had waited this long, another hour wasn’t going to kill me. So I waited.

About an hour later she called me back to tell me it was indeed the third Third Charles Butterworth Award and it was intact and looked great. She also said, “I put it in your sock drawer where it will be safe and I’m not touching it ever again after this.”

A week later when I got home from Boston I got to see the new plaque and it is indeed a handsome replica of the original. It came with a note from Alan, the artist who made them all, which read, “Dear Mr. Simonsen, I hope this made it to you in one piece. I have made it from slightly thicker slate and drilled a smaller hanging hole and used much better packing, so I am keeping my fingers crossed! Best wishes and apologies, Alan.”

I wrote back to Alan, Roger and John “The third "Third Charles Butterworth Award" has arrived safe and sound and will soon occupy a place of honor on the wall in my office.
Thank you very much, to all of you.

Leslie Peltier Award 2012, Charles Butterworth Award 2011
and the AAVSO Directors Award 2005

And so it is. The third Third Charles Butterworth Award now hangs in my office and will remain there until the stars fall from the sky.

And Black Friday will always have its own meaning to me.

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