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Former Eastern Oregon professor recalls last total eclipse

Kendall Baxter said when totality came it was like someone hit the mute button


Kendall Baxter, right of spotting telescope, stands with about 80 students and community members during the last total solar eclipse to come through Union County in 1979. (Observer file photo)

Retired Eastern Oregon University science professor Kendall Baxter vividly recalls what he saw 38-1/2 years ago on Feb. 26, 1979, the last time a total solar eclipse was witnessed in Union County.

Baxter also clearly remembers what he heard, or more precisely what he didn’t hear.

The science professor was with about 80 students and community members at the Ladd Marsh overlook along Foothill Road on a dreary morning when the eclipse hit totality at 8:16 a.m.

A celebratory atmosphere filled with loud conversation had prevailed since the moon began to cover the sun at 7:13 a.m. But then, “Suddenly it went from daylight to dark,” Baxter said.

It was as if someone had hit the mute button as the mood at the Ladd Marsh overlook changed instantly.

“It was as if everyone had been at a happy party and then they stepped into a church,” Baxter said. “It was absolutely quiet. There was almost a religious feeling.”

Many people at the overlook were students in a class Baxter was teaching about the eclipse, so they knew what to expect but this did not prevent a strong reaction.

“Everyone knew why and when this was happening, but they were still awestruck,” Baxter said.

He said there was no noticeable change in luminosity until totality.

“We were not aware that it was dimming,” Baxter said.

He explained that the sun is so radiant that even when just 1 percent of it is not covered by the moon, it is enough to provide brightness.

A highlight for Baxter during the eclipse was the appearance of Baily’s beads, rows of brilliant points that can be seen just
before and after the central phase of a solar eclipse, when the thin slice of visible sun appears broken up into beads of light.

“They looked like bright flashy diamonds,” he said.

Baily’s beads occur because the edge of the moon is jagged with mountain peaks, Baxter said.

Baxter also welcomed the chance to see the sun’s corona during the two-minute period of totality in 1979. The corona is the outermost part of the sun’s atmosphere.

“It is always there, but you can’t see it because the sun is so bright,” Baxter said.

Baxter had taught his students about the sun’s corona and Baily’s beads in the three-week class centered on the eclipse. The class had been scheduled so that the eclipse fell in the middle of the course.

“It was built around the eclipse,” said Baxter, who lives in Union.

The class was the biggest Baxter ever taught at Eastern, with 180 students, some of whom were community members taking no other classes.

“It was standing-room only,” said Baxter, who taught the class in Zabel Hall’s auditorium.