In memoriam: Irene Osterbrock

Widow of late Lick Observatory director was tireless UC Santa Cruz advocate, volunteer, supporter of graduate students, and arts patron.

Irene Osterbrock
Irene Osterbrock, widow of former Lick Observatory Director Donald Osterbrock, longtime UC Santa Cruz Library volunteer, and generous supporter of early-career scientists, died February 2. She was 92.

She was born Irene Hansen, in Williams Bay, Wis., a small town that is also the location of the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory. As a young woman, she worked at the observatory as a “computer,” performing calculations for the astronomers. There she met Donald Osterbrock while he was working on his Ph.D. They married in 1952.

Donald’s career took the Osterbrock family to several institutions around the country before he became a full professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The Osterbrock family came to UC Santa Cruz when Donald was appointed director of Lick Observatory in 1973.

Patron of astronomy

Irene played a constant role in her husband’s career, editing his work and organizing his records. Christine Bunting was director of special collections at the UC Santa Cruz Library when Irene Osterbrock was a volunteer. She noted that Osterbrock’s painstaking indexing of her husband’s papers enabled them to become part of the Online Archive of California.

“She was lovely person and very committed to UC Santa Cruz, the Lick archive, and her husband’s work as a historian and as an astronomer,” Bunting said.

With her close friend Dorothy Schaumberg, Irene Osterbrock volunteered at McHenry Library for more than 20 years, managing astronomy archives and helping researchers locate materials. In 2011, the American Astronomical Society recognized Osterbrock’s contributions to the field, naming her a Patron of the Society.

During Donald Osterbrock’s career, Irene and Donald regularly entertained fellow faculty, said daughter Carol LePage.

“For conferences dad was organizing, my mom would take all the spouses for cultural and entertainment events around Santa Cruz,” LePage said.

Sandra Faber, now emerita, fondly recalled dinners the Osterbrocks hosted when she was an early-career professor.

“Irene was so down to Earth. She had no false airs of any kind,” Faber said. “When you’re a young professor, it means a lot to be welcomed by senior faculty.”

Irene and Donald were always involved in the arts, LePage said. Their Santa Cruz home is decorated with the work of local artists. They were supporters of the Jewel Theater and the Santa Cruz Symphony, and Irene Osterbrock volunteered for various cultural organizations.

“She was completely oriented toward doing good on others’ behalf,” Faber said.

Osterbrock Leadership Program

After Donald Osterbrock’s death in 2007, Irene worked with Faber to establish the Donald and Irene Osterbrock Leadership Program. The program provides UC Santa Cruz astronomy graduate students with mentors and funding for projects that develop leadership skills. It continues the Osterbrocks’ support for scientists at the beginning of their careers and memorializes Donald Osterbrock.

“She loved him and he was a great guy,” LePage said. “He was well known during his lifetime, and I think she wanted to make sure he’s well known for a long time.”

Irene Osterbrock is survived by her three children, Carol LePage, Laura Osterbrock, and Bill Osterbrock, as well as three grandchildren. A memorial service is planned April 6 at Peace United Church of Christ in Santa Cruz.

If you would like to make a donation in Irene’s memory, the family suggests the Donald and Irene Osterbrock Leadership Program Endowment at UC Santa Cruz. Give online by following this link or send a check made out to the “UC Santa Cruz Foundation” with "Osterbrock endowment” in the notes to

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