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John Pfannerstill

Journal Contributor John Pfannerstill writes:

In my day job, I am a commercial underwriter for Chicago Title Insurance Company. I've been with the company about a year and a half, although I've been in the title insurance business for 21 years. We insure mostly high-end commercial real estate transactions. For example, one of our big projects right now is handling the construction escrow disbursing on Miller Park -- the new Milwaukee Brewers' baseball stadium.

Title insurance is a funny business. Nobody ever sets out to go into it as a career. It just sort of sneaks up on you, grabs you and sucks you in. I was no exception. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1978 with a bachelor's degree in Geography. My areas of emphasis were remote sensing and cartography. (Hence the interest in Lunar Orbiter photos of the Apollo sites and my attempts to coordinate the features visible on the surface with the view from overhead.) I fully intended to work for a year or two and then go back to grad school, so I took a job as a cartographer with a company in Milwaukee called Wisconsin Title Service.

I had no idea what a title insurance company did when I took the job. I drew plat maps for them and gradually got promoted and absorbed into other areas of the business. Lori and I were married in 1980 and we suddenly had bills to pay. (Funny how that happens ) Before I knew it, I had a house, a mortgage, and a daughter (Becky, born in 1983). Grad school never happened. I had always intended title insurance to be a temporary thing -- something to pass the time until I found a job with the USGS, NASA, NRO, etc -- but in the blink of an eye, I found myself in my mid-forties with twenty years in and title insurance was the only business I knew. It's worked out okay though. It provides steady employment, a decent income, and adequate time to pursue my passions for space and astronomy.

I've been a space and astronomy nut ever since I can remember. My mom's brother -- William Albrecht -- is a well-known amateur astronomer currently living in Hawaii. He really encouraged me throughout my growing up years. If you're interested in reading more about him, check out the January 1999 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine, pages 92-96. Steve O'Meara did a really nice profile of him.

Uncle Bill lived in Milwaukee until 1979 and one of my earliest memories is of him trying to show me the Soviet Sputnik from my folks' backyard in 1957. I was only three years old and I don't remember seeing anything, but the memory of the attempt remains vivid. Uncle Bill got me involved in the Milwaukee Astronomical Society when I was a kid, and I hung out at the MAS observatory constantly throughout my high school and college years, observing eclipsing binary variable stars and photographing the moon and the planets.

My obsessive passion however was space flight. Without knowing it, I became a space historian and archivist. Beginning with the Gemini 4 flight, I tape recorded the audio from the TV coverage of all of the NASA manned missions, carefully cataloging the tapes. A couple of those old Gemini recordings still survive in my collection, and nearly all of my Apollo recordings are still around. I saved newspaper articles, magazines, books, photographs... you name it. Nothing has been thrown away. I've now got file cabinets, boxes and shelves full of treasures down in my basement study that I would never be able to replace should a fire or flood ever befall us.

Much of the really rare Apollo material in my collection came from an old family friend, the late Capt. John K. ( 'Jack ') Holcomb, who was the NASA HQ Director of Apollo Operations. He worked closely with Chet Lee and sat in the last row of the MOCR during missions.

Beginning with Apollo 14, he used to send me a 'Care Package ' of goodies that were not generally available to the public or the press. (That's how I came to get the Lunar Surface Procedures manual for Apollo 15 -- Jack sent it to me before the launch.) In 1972, he arranged for me to meet Dave Scott and Al Worden during a visit our family took to Houston over spring break. In fact it was Dave who personally gave me the Apollo 16 LSP book while I met with him in his office at MSC, together with an autographed photo -- the famous one of Jim Irwin saluting the flag with Hadley Delta in the background. It remains one of my most prized possessions.

John Pfannerstill with his uncle Bill Albrecht The advent of the Internet and the ALSJ in particular are very exciting to me because of the potential that exists to share the materials in my collection with anyone interested enough to take the time to look. Now instead of sitting in a slowly rusting file cabinet, something like the Apollo 15 LSP manual can be scanned, posted to the ALSJ site and shared with everyone. I find that exciting. It is a great honor to be able to participate in the ALSJ in these kinds of small ways.

And now, at long last, a photo for my bio. It shows my legendary astro-junkie uncle, Bill Albrecht and me sitting in the control room of the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea in July 1991 (I'm the one on the left in the Army jacket). I know it's an old photo, but its the only one I have of me together with this very special man in such an appropriate setting.