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Longtime atmospheric and oceanic sciences professor dies

July 6, 2010

University of Wisconsin–Madison professor Charles R. Stearns passed away on June 22, 2010. He was 85.

Stearns was a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and senior scientist at the Space Science and Engineering Center, both at UW–Madison. He was born in 1925 in McKeesport, Pa., and graduated in 1943 from J. Sterling Morton High School in Cicero, Ill., where he also attained the rank of Eagle Scout.

His association with the University of Wisconsin spanned more than 67 years. He was an undergraduate student at the university from 1943-50, earning a bachelor of science in physics. He also served in the United States Army (1943-46) and fought in the Leyte and Okinawa campaigns. He was awarded a combat infantryman badge, bronze star with oak leaf cluster and Presidential Unit Citation for extraordinary heroism.

Stearns graduated with his master’s degree in meteorology in 1952 and spent time farming outside of Madison. He spent a year as chief physicist at Winzen Research Inc. in Minneapolis (1956-57), later returning to graduate school and receiving his Ph.D. in meteorology in 1967.

Stearns was a member of the UW–Madison faculty since 1965 and was chair of the Instructional Program for the Institute for Environmental Studies from 1972-74. Stearns taught more than 11 classes during his career, including micrometeorology, meteorological instrumentation, weather and climate, and atmospheric dispersion/air pollution. He also was involved in more than nine field projects.

He was the principal investigator of the Antarctic Automatic Weather Station (AWS) Program from 1980-2008. The AWS project was the first large-scale meteorological instrumentation placed on the Antarctic continent. Stearns was a deeply respected colleague and a generous spirit who spent years instrumenting the Antarctic continent and exploring its weather and climate as well as their impacts on the rest of the world. In 1992, he developed a method for the generation of satellite composite imagery over the Antarctic continent and adjacent southern oceans still used in forecasting, research and education.

In 1982, the National Science Foundation awarded Stearns the Antarctic Service Medal for his scientific achievement under the U.S. Antarctic Research Program. He was elected a fellow of the American Meteorological Society in 2004. He will be awarded the Goldthwaite Polar Medal posthumously at the fifth Antarctic Meteorological Observation, Modeling and Forecasting Workshop in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday, July 12.

During his career, Stearns was adviser to 30 students and provided significant assistance to a half dozen other students in the U.S. and abroad with their research.

Additional interests included working on his farm, spending time with his family and raising alpacas. Stearns continued to consult with the university and Antarctic programs well into retirement. He was a member of the town of Oregon planning commission for 21 years, acting as chair for 15 of those years.

Jon Martin, chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences, speaks of Stearns’ “dedication to the assistant professors in the department, myself included. He routinely checked in on us and made sure that were getting what we needed to succeed. This was a quiet, personal mission of his — undirected by the department — and it meant a lot to a lot of us.”

Stearns is survived by a son, James of Oregon; a daughter, Laura (Ken) Drescher of Athens, Ga.; a sister, Carolyn Spacek; nieces Anne (James) Gerlach and Lynne (Dan) Toth; a nephew, David F. (Sandra) Spacek; grand-nieces, Wendy Spacek, Dana Ballard and Sherri (Dennis) Lindsey; grand-nephews, David M. Spacek and Eric Ballard; and two great-grand-nephews, Oliver Lindsey and Gabriel Ballard; and cousins Helen Clark and Edna Mae Thorpe. He was preceded in death by his parents, Lois and Fenton Stearns.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations in Stearns’ name to Habitat for Humanity.