Jack Townshend


No one knows how many serenades Jack Townshend delivered. But if you lived in Fairbanks during the decades in which he spontaneously sang at public events and venues, odds are that you either received or heard one.

His singing was only one facet of his remarkable personality and life, though.

Townshend didn’t hold a college degree until UAF presented him with an honorary doctorate in 1995, but he served science his entire life. 

Leaving the Army after World War II, Townshend replaced his father at the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey. In 1963, that agency sent him and his family to Fairbanks, where he became chief of the College Magnetic and Seismological Observatory.

The observatory, founded in 1941, operated an ionosonde radar to study the upper atmosphere, devices to record changes in the Earth’s magnetic field, and instruments to measure the strength and direction of radio signals. At that time, it was headquartered in a white building set on the highest point on the University of Alaska campus, the location today of Troth Yeddha’ Park.

In 1996, Townshend opened a new observatory on a 46-acre site north of Smith Lake. The U.S. Geological Survey transferred the facility to the UAF Geophysical Institute in 2002. The university named it the Jack Townshend College International Geophysical Observatory in 2009. It continues to host instruments that collect geomagnetic, seismic and geophysical data.

During his long career, Townshend also helped develop similar observatories in Virginia, Florida and Colombia, South America, and on the Shumagin Islands south of the Alaska Peninsula.

Townshend took up running in his 50s and became an enthusiastic participant and volunteer at races for the last three decades of his life. He finished the Equinox Marathon 19 times.

A member of the Explorers Club, Townshend was invited to speak on his philosophy of life and work at the organization’s 1994 conference in Norway. “I believe our journey through life would be more productive, meaningful and enjoyable if we were more aware of serendipity and serendipitous experiences," he said, expressing a belief that he shared with any and all he met.

More online about Jack Townshend:

  • His obituary in the Aug. 17, 2012, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

  • An Aug. 15, 2012, news story in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner after his death.

  • A 2003 profile republished from the American Running Association.