Professor keeps an eye on the evening sky

Space cadet

Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2002

As a young boy growing up in Germany, Andreas "Andy" Veh spent countless hours staring up at the night sky. Now a professor at Kenai Peninsula College, Veh will have lots of time to do just that during the long Alaska nights.

He's spent most of his life following the stars, and his trek has taken him to several different vantage points from which to watch the night pass overhead. Now a physics professor at the college, Veh said he's finally ready to settle down.

He and his wife, Kate, moved to Alaska from Oregon last month. Since then, they've been living in a small cabin in Kenai. Veh said the couple plans to stay for a while.

"Until we retire," he said while sitting in his office at the college.

KPC will be Veh's third college teaching job in eight years. Before coming to the peninsula, he taught physics at West Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff, Neb., and Blue Mountain Community College in Pendleton, Ore. He said he's progressively moved to smaller and smaller schools as he and Kate have moved west.

"This one is my smallest yet," he said.

However, that's not necessarily a bad thing for the laid-back Veh.

"The class size is pretty good," he said.

With a full beard, and wearing a flannel shirt over a T-shirt of the periodic table of elements, Veh could pass as any longtime sourdough. He likes to greet visitors with a smile or a joke, like giving a reporter directions to his office while pretending to be someone else.

He said he's always been interested in what goes on in nature, and especially the heavens.

"It's kind of a lifelong thing," he said.

Lifelong pursuits seem to be commonplace for Veh, who met his wife when both were small children vacationing in Hawaii. The families kept in contact over the years, and when Kate, who is originally from Ketchikan, went to Europe to study, the romance blossomed. The two were married in 1994 while attending Minnesota State University at Mankato, then known as Mankato State.

"Vacation" brought the two together, Veh said.

That, and familiarity.

"We just kept in contact over the years," he said, grinning slyly.


The moon hangs in the night sky.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Although he considers stargazing mainly a hobby, Veh holds master's degrees in astronomy, as well as physics and mathematics. Kate also is a teacher, focusing on special education.

The decision to move to Alaska was pretty simple, he said.

"She said, 'Well, let's give it a try.' So we are giving it a try."

Despite coming to Alaska somewhat on the spur of the moment, Veh said he didn't just leave Oregon without a plan. He and Kate would never dream of going somewhere without first knowing what was in the stars -- so to speak.

"We go where we know we have a job," he said.

Veh said he's settling into the KPC community pretty easily.

"Students are pretty much the same anywhere in the U.S.," he said, though his KPC students, many of whom are working toward degrees in petroleum process technology, have proved to be a somewhat unique assignment.

"It's interesting. Many of these (students) have a goal to go to work right away. Or they are already working in the field," he said.

Veh said the small faculty size also is new to him. Both colleges he's previously taught at had more than twice KPC's 25 faculty members. However, judging by the reaction from KPC faculty, Veh is having little trouble making a good impression.

"You talked to Andy?" KPC community relations coordinator Suzie Kendrick asked following the interview.

"He's really a kick, isn't he?" she said.

In addition to his work at the college, Veh also is an avid outdoor enthusiast. He said he's already had several opportunities to enjoy the peninsula as the summer season came to an end. He and Kate have done some Kenai River fishing at -- where else -- College Hole. Veh said his success thus far has been limited, though he plans on getting his fish any way he can.

"We are plan to go to Homer to snag some," he said.

Veh said his technique for catching clams is also still somewhat unrefined. Although he and Kate managed to bring home their share of bivalves from a recent trip to Clam Gulch, he isn't ready to proclaim himself an expert just yet.


The aurora borealis glows directly overhead in the sky above Kenai last November.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I have kind of a stupid technique. I dig at them from the top instead of from the side. But I haven't cut my finger yet."

Judging from his take on clamming, Veh already may be on his way to becoming a genuine Alaskan.

"Of course, the work starts after the digging," he said.

Although he's only lived on the peninsula for less than two months, Veh said he's already seen the area's competition for beach food.

They were walking on the beach at Captain Cook, he said, when the couple spotted some suspicious tracks -- below the tide line.

"We turned around pretty fast when we saw the bear tracks."

Veh should be more comfortable once the bears begin hibernating.

That's also when the winter sky should begin producing some memorable sights, including the famed aurora borealis, or northern lights. Veh said he's seen them before, but is looking forward to the unique view provided by the peninsula's northern latitude.

He pulls a picture, taken in Nebraska, of an aurora he saw while teaching Outside.

"I think it should be better here than in Nebraska," he said.

The northern lights won't be all Veh will be keeping his eyes on this winter. He'll be writing a monthly guest column for the Peninsula Clarion in which he plans to point out all the interesting celestial features that can be seen above the peninsula. He said he plans for the column to be his way of informing area residents about what's going on in the sky.

"I'll probably describe what's good to see (each) month," he said.

This month, Veh said Alaskans will get the chance to see a planet many people don't even know is visible.

"I could point out where to look for Uranus. You need binoculars," he said.


Comet Hale-Bopp shines among the stars above the Kenai Mountains near Cooper Landing in March 1997. Comets are less frequent visitors but often put on a good show when they are here.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Veh has previously written newspaper columns in the papers back in Nebraska and Oregon. He said he's looking forward to seeing what views he'll get in Alaska.

"It's kind of interesting, so far north. I'm missing some of the southern (constellations), but gaining some others," he said.

Giving area sky watchers somewhere to look will be Veh's primary focus in his columns. However, his interest in a variety of scientific subjects may cause him to stray into other areas of his expertise.

"I'll probably switch to some science in general," he said. "I figure it will be alternating -- sort of an astronomy-science column."

Despite being ready to begin a winter of staring into the night sky, Veh said he does have some reservations about the coming Alaska winter.

"Actually, I'm enjoying the fall," he said. "The weather will be interesting. But it's not that much more north than Berlin," he said.

From his early days in a small German town to college and romance in the United States to his current stop in the Last Frontier, Veh has traveled extensively in his lifelong pursuit of science, letting the night sky be his guide.

Now, after 10 years in the United States, he said he thinks he's finally found a home beneath the North Star.

Just like any shooting star, Andy Veh had to land somewhere.

"I think we'll stay," he said.

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