An eclipse chaser preps for the big celestial show

SALISBURY'S TOM GOLPER, a self-described “eclipse nerd,” has traveled the world with his wife, Lee Ann, chasing eclipses since 1998 — and he has the commemorative T-shirts and glasses to prove it! April 8’s total eclipse in Vermont will be his fifth, and he and his family plan to watch it. Independent photo/Steve James

ADDISON COUNTY — The first time Tom and Lee Ann Golper saw a total solar eclipse, they were on a cruise ship in the Caribbean with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin. 

“I’m sort of a science fiction fan,” said Tom, a nephrologist and self-described “eclipse nerd”; he and wife Lee Ann live in Salisbury. 

The couple is among the countless number of people — locals and visitors — who will be out in the open spaces of northern Vermont to view the total eclipse of the sun on Monday, April 8. For the first time since 1932, Vermonters will be able to see this unusual celestial phenomenon, in which the moon passes between the sun casting a shadow of total darkness for a minute or two. Look for totality at around 3:27 p.m.

Years ago Tom Golper joined the National Space Society and the Planetary Society, two nonprofits involved in research and public outreach related to astronomy, space exploration and the like. For fun, the organizations put on events for their members such as cruises with superstar hosts. 

Which is how Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, ended up leading this weeklong cruise in 1998, the purpose of which was to watch a total solar eclipse off the coast of Aruba. The ship was full of scientists and astronomers, many of whom brought their own telescopes.

The sky was overcast as the eclipse approached, and the captain gave passengers the option of disembarking for the experience, or staying aboard. The Golpers chose to stay on the ship, betting that they’d have a better chance of getting around those clouds on a fast-moving vessel. 

“The captain knew there was clear sky 50 miles away,” Tom recalled. “But we had to hurry.” 

Passengers were advised to come down from the upper deck while the ship picked up speed, hauling at 30 miles an hour to clear skies. Lee Ann went downstairs, but Tom didn’t want to lose his prime eclipse-watching spot. “All the telescopes and the geeks were up there,” he said. 

They made it to clear skies just in time. Lee Ann came upstairs to find her husband, and she laughed recalling what she found.

“I see Tom wearing his dad’s golf hat, like a bucket hat,” she recalled. “And then he has the solar eclipse glasses on, and because he’s worried the hat will get blown off, he’s taken the belt of a terrycloth robe and tied it around his hat with a big bow under his chin.”

TOM GOLPER SAW his first eclipse on a Caribbean cruise with Buzz Aldrin in 1998. Since then he and his wife, Lee Ann, have seen them in France, Nashville and Zion National Park. He’s looking forward to witnessing totality again on April 8 in Vermont.
Independent photo/Steve James

“I’m all about function, she’s about form,” Tom said, defending his eclipse-watching style. Besides, it didn’t matter how he looked. Everyone’s eyes were on the eclipse.

Total eclipses like the one coming to Vermont April 8 happen about 70 times a century. On the cruise ship, the Golpers were surrounded by scientists who had seen them before, so they were able to point out subtle changes as totality approached, such as the temperature dropping. Then the diamond ring — a sparkling ring of sun around the darkness of the moon — appeared. At the moment of totality, he was advised to take off his glasses and look for Baily’s Beads, which are created by the sun’s light pooling and sparkling in the craters of the moon. 

He put the glasses back on to protect his eyes right before the moon began to move out of totality.

“It’s emotional,” said Tom. “If someone tells you this isn’t the most amazing thing they’ve ever seen, they’re lying. It’s a gift from God.”

“And science,” interjected Lee Ann.

Since then, the Golpers have seen three more eclipses: One in France in 1999, one in 2017 in Nashville, where they used to live, and an annular eclipse — when the moon is at such a distance from the Earth that it doesn’t fully occlude the sun — in Zion National Park in 2019. The upcoming total eclipse in Vermont will be their fifth.

The Golpers plan to watch it in northwestern Addison County. “I want to see it on Lake Champlain,” Tom said, noting that totality will last longer a bit farther north and west of Middlebury. 

Tom said he has learned a thing or two over the years about how to approach this incredible event. 

“At totality you’re going to be looking at the sun,” he said. “Take a moment to look around you, too. Just looking at the horizon is going to be incredible, because the horizon you see is under full-fledged sun while you’re standing in dusk. You’re never going to see anything like that.”

For a list of local events planned around April’s total solar eclipse, click here.

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