On the western outskirts of Petaluma lies 1.3 acres of land that houses several telescopes, an observatory with retracting roof, separate moon, vegetable and flower gardens, a ham radio station with enhanced emergency frequency antennae and a G-scale model train layout complete with water features, landscaping, trestles and hundreds of feet of track.
This is where Eric Swanson, his wife of 47 years, Mary Ann, and the couple’s dog, Bess, make their home. The retired couple, he from the Department of Public Health and she from a career in social work, have created a sanctuary-like place that suits their post-retirement pursuits, which include fiber arts, astronomy, gardening, ham radio, photography, woodworking and model trains.
Swanson, 75, is currently the secretary of Sonoma County’s Astronomy Society, a group that works to promote an interest in astronomy, with efforts including annual presentations to middle schoolers when the skies offer viewable events, such as a recent transit of Mercury across the face of the sun or conjunctions of planets that are visible.
Swanson is passionate about astronomy and enjoys sharing his expertise with the 5 to 12-year-old children who attend, showing them what to look for when they turn their faces to the night skies. He first came by his love of astronomy as a child himself, when his father gave him a planisphere, a star chart analog computing instrument, he said.
“It’s so rewarding to kindle an interest in the skies in young people who may not have ever considered looking up before,” he said.
It was a neighbor who helped Swanson develop his ham radio skills and who taught him enough so that he was able to earn his first license in 1965. He was later able to deploy his radio skills his post at The Department of Public Health Service, later becoming involved in the Auxiliary Communications Services, which offers emergency preparedness support.
He pursued enhancements allowing him to become a part of the official emergency radio operators’ network and went on to launch a local official ham radio community in 1991.
Post-retirement, Swanson continues to aid emergency responders with volunteer radio support and is a member of Sonoma County’s Volunteers In Prevention, a group that contributes to the South County framework disaster response network that also provides training to assist responders. He continues to participate with fire officials, most recently during the illegal firework activity watch around the Fourth of July.
“We’re sort of a hidden asset,” he said of ham radio operators.
The Swansons keep busy around their Petaluma home, maintaining its gardens, bridges and model train layout as well as keeping the observatory, electronics and optical devices cleaned and operating. When it’s time to get away, they head for Doran Beach. Swanson also enjoys what he calls “hobby photography,” and has won several awards for his astronomical photographs from the Sonoma County Fair.
Swanson said he and his wife share a strong work ethic and a sense of team spirit. He said his drive comes from the desire to help out and get other people involved with community efforts.
“The nice part about retirement is that we’re both able to volunteer and do more community stuff,” he said.
(Contact Lynn Schnitzer at email@example.com)
At A Glance:
Name: Eric Swanson
Occupation: Retired Department of Public Health management.
Family: Mary Ann, wife of 47 years and Bess, their dog.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in general management from California State University, Sacramento, master’s degree in systems management from University of Southern California.
Hometown: Rockville, Maryland; lived in Petaluma since 1974.
Community service: Member of Auxiliary Community Service as ham radio operator and part of disaster response network; member of Cal Fire Volunteers In Prevention; secretary of Sonoma County Astronomical Society.
Award: Most recently won Sonoma County Volunteer of the Year 2016 for ACS activities.
Hobbies: Amateur radio, astronomy, hobby photographer.
Favorite Petaluma-area hangout: Home and Doran Beach