Ervin Joseph Prouse was born in Anthony. Kansas, on July 20, 1905 to Herbert Spencer (1883–1963) and Olive "Ollie" Hughbanks (1882–1954) Prouse. Other children in the family included Harold Orville (1907–1994) and Alvin S. (1908–1999).
Prouse became enamored by the night sky, visible from that flat, dark countryside. His future commitment to the study of astronomy was sealed by his sight of Halley`s Comet in 1910. He saved pennies from trapping muskrat in the winter and selling ears of corn in Anthony in the summer to purchase science and history books.
Prouse graduated as valedictorian of his class at Anthony High School, receiving a scholarship to attend the University of Wichita. Two years later, he transferred to the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where he received his BA in 1927 and MA in 1933. Prouse taught at Washburn College, Topeka, Kansas for seven years between 1929 and 1937, with an intervening year for graduate work at the University of California at Berkeley (UCB) in 1933–1934. He continued his graduate work in 1937, and earned a PhD in astronomy from UCB in 1939 (Thesis: A Photometric Investigation of Two Titanium Multiplets in the Solar Spectrum). Joining the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin (UTA) in 1939, Prouse taught undergraduate and graduate courses in astronomy, mathematics, and physics there from that year until 1972. His research interests were celestial mechanics and the orbits of stars, planets, and satellites.
Prouse married Thelma Ruth Pressing (1905–2000) in 1929. They had three children, Darlene Prouse (Birkes) (1932–2011), Ruth Prouse (Morgan) and Ervin Dale Prouse. Ervin Dale died very young.
During World War II, Prouse taught celestial navigation, practical astronomy and general astronomy to Navy cadets. Later, driving from Austin to Houston every Tuesday from 1962 through 1966, he taught the same subjects to three classes of astronauts, the future crews for the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights. NASA was extremely pleased with his work with the astronauts.
In a lifetime of dedication to the study of astronomical science, Ervin Prouse was also devoted to teaching and to his students, many of whom continued to maintain contact with him after his retirement. He was so effective as a teacher that one of the UTA Engineering departments insisted on supplementing his salary for teaching an especially needed mathematics course for their majors (a very unusual movement of money across colleges).
Prouse arrived in Austin in 1939, the same year that the McDonald Observatory was dedicated and formally opened on Mt. Locke at Fort Davis, Texas. The observatory was the result of a cooperative agreement between UTA and the Yerkes Observatory of the University of Chicago. After one of Prouse’s month-long stays at McDonald Observatory, in February 1949, he returned to the Austin campus with his recommendations for improvements at the Observatory. At the time, McDonald Observatory had over 10,000 visitors per year, in spite of its remote location in West Texas. Sir Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal of Great Britain, had been a guest at McDonald during that month. Yet, on his return to the Austin campus, Professor Prouse lamented in his notes: "It seems that the science of astronomy must be sold to The University of Texas. The administration is definitely not interested in this endeavor. When it was suggested that members of the McDonald Observatory participate in some small measure at seminars at the University, President T. S. Painter replied that such seminars required an audience."
After that experience, Professor Prouse devoted a great effort throughout his career to "selling" astronomy and, later, the space program. He knew that Texas needed a place to look at the stars scientifically. He was tireless in his devotion to public outreach, through public speaking engagements, viewing hours at observatories, and working with students of all ages. He took part in the Texas Academy of Science visiting scientist program in middle and senior high schools. He continued to accept speaking engagements after he and his wife, whom he married in 1927, moved to a retirement home in Amarillo in 1991. A member of Sigma Xi honorary science fraternity, Sigma Pi Sigma physics honorary society, and a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, London, Prouse was a fifty-year member of the American Astronomical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Fellow), and the American Association of University Professors. He held membership in the American Mathematical Association and was a Fellow in the Texas Academy of Science.
Prouse retired in the Texas Panhandle to be close to the flat land and the open sky that he loved. As a boy, living on a wheat farm in Kansas, he acquired and never lost his love for the wide-open spaces. He farmed wheat land in the summers from 1927 until 1969. His friends and colleagues remember Prouse as quiet, self-effacing, kind, and considerate, and for his utmost honesty and integrity. He was active for over fifty years in University Methodist Church in Austin and was a long-time member of Kiwanis Clubs in Austin and Amarillo. Professor Prouse is survived by three children, five grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren. His wife, Thelma, followed him in death in 2000 at age ninety-four.
W. T. Guy. Jr.
University of Texas and
Ruth Prouse Morgan
Southern Methodist University
Bulletin of the American Astronomical Society ; Vol. 34, no. 4, p. 1373-1374, 2002.
Some additional material added by Mel Oakes.
Pictures courtesy of Ruth Prouse Morgan, daughter of Erwin Prouse. She was Professor of Political Science and Provost of Southern Methodist University.
Story about Professor Prouse:
"I entered the University of Texas in the Fall of 1946, declaring my major to be physics (later I decided to do a double major in physics and math), but it was several years before I became significantly involved with the affairs of the physics department. Outside of the classroom I spent most of my time playing music, both on campus and in various clubs and other venues in the Austin area. A spur-of-the-moment enrollment in one of Professor Prouse's courses got me seriously interested in astronomy and by my junior year I had an assistantship taking care of the telescope and astronomical transit on the top floor of Painter Hall and giving some public talks on astronomy. At the same time, my roommate, John Wolvin, had an assistantship teaching the lab section of Professor Kuehne's course in photography, which gave him responsibility for a rather well-equipped professional dark room plus the student dark rooms also on the top floor of Painter. All-in-all, for a couple of years John and I regarded the top of Painter Hall as sort of our private fiefdom. As graduation approached in 1950, Professor Prouse suggested that I apply for admission to graduate school at the University of Michigan whose astronomy faculty had just been invigorated by an infusion of talent from Harvard. He also arranged with the staff at Yerkes Observatory (who were still operating McDonald Observatory at that time) for me to spend the coming summer as an assistant at McDonald so that I would arrive at Michigan with a little observing experience."
—Dr. Albert Boggess, Project Scientist for Hubble Space Telescope
In 1986, Dr Ervin J. and Thelma Prouse endowed an award in honor of their daughters; it is called the Mrs. Darlene Prouse Birkes and Dr. Ruth Prouse Morgan Texas Excellence Award of Recognition for Scholarship and Leadership. Darlene Prouse Birkes, BJ 1954 and MA 1957, teaches in Pampa High School. Dr. Ruth Prouse Morgan, assistant provost at Southern Methodist University, was member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated from the University of Texas in 1956. She received a PhD from Louisiana State University.
Ervin Joseph Prouse Photo and Document Album