Article By: Donald R. Schmitt
Dr. J. Allen Hynek Remembered at 100
Legendary folklorist Mark Twain wasn’t the only famous American to be born in the year of Halley’s Comet and to die in the year of its next return. So was my friend and mentor, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The year Twain died, 1910, was the year Hynek was born. This May would have been Dr. Hynek’s 101st birthday.
Many have searched for the truth about the UFO mystery, hoping it will lead to some form of Disclosure. Like Halley’s Comet, Dr. Hynek traveled an astronomical path and his story remains a very important one in ufology — from a skepticism to an acknowledgement that something outside the ordinary was actually happening in the skies above us.
Ironically, his work as the scientific adviser to the study of UFOs undertaken by the U.S. Air Force known as Project Blue Book (1952 to 1969) may have been an accident of geography. At the time of his selection, he was a professor of astronomy and physics at Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. And Ohio State is really just down the road from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio where Blue Book was based. That geography changed his life, and meeting him changed mine.
In 1973, after Blue Book had been mothballed and he’d moved out of the Air Force’s influence, Hynek became the founder of CUFOS, the Center for UFO Studies where he continued his own independent UFO research until the day he died on April 27, 1986. Hynek also served as chairman of the Astronomy Department at Northwestern University where his specialty was the chemical composition of space.
He always promoted the idea of scientific analysis of UFO reports, and I followed his lead in my work for him as the CUFOS Director of Special Investigations. His belief in evidence first still informs all my current research into the Roswell case.
Life After Blue Book
The first actual attempt at some form of public disclosure took place during the Gerald Ford administration following the resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford had previously taken a very active position while serving as a congressman for the state of Michigan as a result of the famous Dexter/Ann Arbor sightings in 1966. At that time, while serving as the scientific consultant to Project Blue Book, Hynek suggested that only one of the numerous reports could be attributed to “swamp gas,” although that phrase stuck with him all his life and colored perceptions of him both within and without the UFO community. Ford, in particular, was not amused with the Air Force’s nonchalant attitude and treatment of his own constituents, as he perceived them through Hynek’s filtered observations. And so, the future president, never forgot the very scientist, who made, in his eyes, such an outlandish suggestion — Dr. J. Allen Hynek.
About five years after Blue Book had lost what remaining credibility it had with the American public partly due to such controversial explanations, Hynek met privately in Washington with then President Ford’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. Hynek didn’t mince words when he demanded to be told the truth after twenty years of service simply to be dismissed with no answers from the Pentagon. Hynek was of the opinion that he had faithfully maintained the Air Force’s status quo and had earned the right to be told the truth. Clearly, the good professor felt he had intentionally been left out of the inner circle. Hynek had dutifully arrived at the conclusion that someone was controlling the access to the truth about the UFO phenomenon. Not the least bit moved, Rumsfeld forcefully lectured Hynek that he “had no right to know.” At the least, Rumsfeld’s remark can be interpreted that there remains “something to know.” Hynek’s reprimand only fueled his desire for the answers all the more.
Donald Schmitt is the co-author of the best-selling book,Witness to Roswell, and is the leading specialist who continues to investigate the Roswell Incident. He is the former co-director of the J. Allen Hynek Center for UFO Studies, where he served as Director of Special Investigations for ten years. Prior to that, he was a special investigator for the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek. The Showtime movie Roswell was based on first book, UFO Crash at Roswell. His latest book and life rights have been optioned, along with those of Stanton Friedman, as the basis for the feature film project, Majic Men.
It would appear that as a former government consultant on a subject as controversial as UFOs, Hynek stirred the pot enough to receive a phone call about a year latter from a close friend within the Chicago, Illinois media. This was the city where the astrophysicist had established CUFOS. The media had just been “tipped off” that an announcement pertaining to the subject was about to come out and they wanted Hynek in their TV studio for an immediate reaction. He waited a number of hours before this shocking invitation suddenly evaporated. No excuse was ever given even after the original source was verified to have been with the United States government.
It was just a few years later in 1977 when the next possible opportunity surfaced under President Jimmy Carter. During his presidential campaign, Carter had stated on numerous occasions that should he be elected, he would open the government’s UFO files if “they did not threaten national security.” As before, Hynek received another early evening call, but this time it was more direct and specific — and reliable. TV/radio station WGN (WGN is owned by the Tribune Company which also publishes the Chicago Tribune) had received an actual call from a verified source in Washington and the word was that the president or a presidential representative was about to break into live TV and make a special announcement about UFOs! For the aging Hynek, always the curious scientist, this was another chance he couldn’t resist. Within the hour he was picked up by a cab and driven into downtown Chicago to sit and wait. And wait and wait — as the station remained on a total standby, although he couldn’t help but feel second-string. After all, if this was the real thing, then why was he waiting with reporters in Chicago and not at a press conference at the Pentagon? Rumsfeld’s words resounded once again in his head. After a number of hours passed, a once again exasperated Hynek was delivered back to his home in Evanston, none the better for this continuing thirty-year-old game. The last word the TV studio received was, “It’s all off. Forget about it.” But Hynek and certain powers in Washington would not.
Hynek, in many ways, was a statesman whose portfolio was UFOs. This was partly due to all the time he spent in Washington. And, like a diplomat, he had been forced to tolerate broken promises on so many occasions, and forced to maintain cool detachment when he felt anger. As a scientist, it must have been maddening to deal with uniformed bureaucrats and the branches of the military that were controlled by their purse strings. But he knew how the game worked and he, albeit reluctantly, realized he had to actively campaign for his final research into this increasingly elusive new scientific endeavor. Now on the outside, he would no longer have access to official data. There would be no funding from Washington, and the scientific community regarded his association with the topic, even while a paid government consultant, as somewhat of a betrayal to their “all so sacred” true science. UFOs were, and still remain fringe science to many people.
The foremost authority on the subject of UFOs found himself spending more and more time soliciting funding and support for his newly founded Center for UFO Studies in Chicago. His credentials which included being head of the Astronomy department, emeritus, at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois helped. Still, without financial assistance, how could he possibly compete with the very forces who had sold him out — who withheld the truth from him after so many devoted years of playing by their rules. They had repaid his loyalty of twenty years with not so much as a token offering. In their eyes, he “had no right” to know anything about the subject he had devoted his life to study. Betrayed, he knew he would have to do it on his own.
“I’m An Old Man in a Hurry”
This was his regular lament in those days when stress became an emotional tiger which caused him to cast logic and reason aside at times as he occasionally did. Too often he would trust and believe some of the most outlandish promises from individuals outside the UFO community who offered “funded research facilities.” Or the next entrepreneur was “just around the corner.” And like a stuck record, the truth was always poised to come out within “the next year.” And with his own time dwindling, he was too open to such false claims. But he wanted to be there. He deserved to be there. Like Mark Twain, he always believed that he had come with the comet and then he would go with the comet. Alas, he feared his time was running out.
He never gave up hope that some big unexplainable case would finally reveal itself to the world or, as he had learned from all of the years working with those very people who had full access to the truth — maybe the truth was right here all along. Apparently, that was one of his reasons for becoming desperately curious in the whole UFO crash-retrieval phenomenon. He started interviewing neighbors who lived near the famous site where some rancher claimed one crashed back in 1947. Yes, Hynek was investigating Roswell back in the early eighties.
Personal notes in his classic handwriting painted a renewed “little boy” enthusiasm from interviews he conducted with witnesses who provided him with hope he had almost lost. These unsuspecting individuals described to him the same classic characteristics we have long heard since about the strange debris. And none of these told Hynek tales about weather balloons. Still, he wisely realized that time was speeding past even them.
I’m sure some individuals in Washington breathed a sign of relief when the brain tumor was removed by surgeons at the famous Moffitt Cancer Center in San Francisco, California. Not out of concern, but because Hynek would soon be out of the picture. Like so many before, he, too, became expendable. Just as all the witnesses at Roswell had realized — the truth was the sacrificial lamb and their civil and constitutional rights went up in smoke with the offering. Hynek became just another victim of their physiological carnage which continues to strike down any one of us who gets “too close.”
Character assassination, smear tactics, all the elements utilized by the skeptics, and tragically, scientific colleagues who should have known better — Hynek had encountered them all. But the government remains their meal-ticket with grants and special project funding. SETI is a principal example. If Hynek or anyone else ever solved the UFO mystery, they’d have been out of business. It is all quite that simple, and he knew it better than most.
Hynek’s Last Lament
“Why can’t they tell me now? Why can’t they tell me the truth even now?,” wondered the dying astronomer as he lay in the recovery room at the hospital. His plea fell on ears hardened by years of deceit and denial. And Hynek, like the rest of us, once believed them. Jesse Marcel had been told at Roswell, “Just be a good soldier for a few more years and it will all come out.”
In his lifetime, J. Allen Hynek had seen the study of UFOs become a circus ring more than a few times. He observed some people he worked for as having more in common with P.T. Barnum than Abraham Lincoln, another son of Illinois like Hynek. He had been patient to a fault.
Now, for the remaining months of his life, Hynek’s family focused on fulfilling his one final request. He simply wanted to know the truth, to take to his grave a sense that his life had been lived well in the service of history. He was denied.
No secret documents anonymously arrived from parts unknown. There were no special curriers from Washington. No upper statesman called with any final confessions. The Pentagon was just running out the clock. We doubt that the old general officers there even had much awareness or concern of what the seasoned UFO investigator had discovered without their strict guidelines. Yet one aspect of the subject which clearly ought to have gained their attention was what Hynek had learned about UFO crash/retrieval reports. He kept most of his thoughts on that subject to himself, but he told them to me, pointing me in the direction of my lifetime passion, to tell the definitive truth about this seminal moment of contact in the New Mexico desert.
A Perfect Orbit
“Just let me see the comet before it’s too late.”
That was Hynek’s last wish — to see Halley’s Comet for himself. Originally, those of us who worked with him had discussed a trip down to New Zealand to get the best possible look at the comet. So weakened by his chemotherapy treatment and the ravages of the disease itself, taking him on any prolonged trip for a better look was out of the question. He was quickly fading, sleeping nearly 23 hours a day.
On a near holographic night in 1986 then, a small party drove out into the black Arizona desert with the most heralded UFO authority in the world. Not to look for the unknown but rather an old friend. The group stopped at a good open spot and gently helped the frail, old scholar from the car. Then, leaning him against the side of the vehicle, they waited. The comet made its appearance at the appointed time — 76 years after it heralded the departure of Mark Twain and the arrival of Josef Allen Hynek. “Halley, my old traveling companion” is what he said as they lifted his head ever-so-slightly so he could get a better look. He nodded approval at the sight. A tear trickled down his contented face. Soon, too soon, it became time to head back. Dr. J. Allen Hynek was now ready to go home.