Flagstaff, Arizona – William Lowell Putnam, III (“Bill”) died yesterday at the age of 90. Putnam was a prominent alpinist, broadcaster, and, for 26 years, Sole Trustee of the observatory his great uncle Percival Lowell founded in 1894.
Lowell Observatory director Jeffrey Hall said, “Bill Putnam is one of the monumental figures in the 120-year history of Lowell Observatory. The institution will forever benefit from his devotion and dedication to enhancing our research capabilities, expanding our outreach facilities, and beautifying our grounds. He will be deeply missed.”
Bill Putnam was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on October 25th, 1924, the third of six children born to Roger and Caroline Putnam. While studying geology at Harvard, he volunteered to fight in World War II, enlisting as a private and joining the elite 10th Mountain Division, a specialized ski unit trained to fight in mountainous and arctic conditions. He served in both the Aleutian and Italian campaigns, rising to the rank of first lieutenant. He was awarded two Purple Hearts for injuries sustained and earned the Silver and Bronze Stars for gallantry in action.
After the war ended, Putnam returned to Harvard to finish his schooling in geology and then briefly taught this subject at Tufts University. In September, 1951 Bill married Joan Faith Fitzgerald. The couple’s second child, William Lowell Putnam IV (Lowell) was born in 1954 and in 2013 succeeded his father as Sole Trustee of Lowell Observatory.
Moving back to Springfield, Bill turned his attention to television. In 1953, he founded WWLP, Springfield’s first TV station and the first licensed UHF television station in the United States. For his pioneering efforts, Putnam was inducted into the Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2001.
While making a name for himself in the broadcasting world, Putnam also became prominent in alpinist circles. He made several first ascents and exploratory expeditions in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia, establishing himself as a distinguished American climber. He served as president of the American Alpine Club and vice president and councilmember of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA). Putnam edited Canadian Rockies climbing guidebooks for years and in 2002, an alpine hut in the Selkirk Mountains was renamed the Bill Putnam Hut in his honor.
Putnam later took up writing and authored a score of books about a variety of topics, including mountain climbing, Lowell Observatory history, his wartime adventures, his recollections of the early days of WWLP, railroads, merchant ships of World War I, and freedom of the press.
After retiring from broadcasting, Putnam assumed the Sole Trusteeship of Lowell Observatory from his brother Michael. Putnam would hold this positon for 26 years, retiring in 2013. During his years at Lowell, Putnam significantly expanded the visitor program by spearheading the construction of a new visitor center in 1994. On the research side, he worked closely with then-director Robert Millis in developing and realizing a vision of a major modern facility, the Discovery Channel Telescope. In one of his final significant acts as trustee, Putnam guaranteed the construction of a new library and repository, the Putnam Collection Center, which opened in June, 2014.
Putnam and his second wife, Kathryn Elizabeth Putnam (“Kitty”), made significant philanthropic contributions. In Flagstaff, some of the recipients of their patronage included the Flagstaff Symphony Orchestra, United Way of Northern Arizona, and the Flagstaff Festival of Science. Because of his long record of philanthropy in the community, Bill was honored with a Viola Legacy Award in 2013, given annually to a citizen for lifetime contributions to the arts and/or sciences in the Flagstaff area.
Putnam is survived by his children Katherine E. Putnam (Timothy Delaney), Lowell Putnam (Kim) and Erica Broman (Christopher Millette); stepchildren Karen Talbot (David) and Morgan Broman (Amy Dale); brothers Roger and Michael Putnam; sisters Anna Lowell Tomlinson and Polly Chatfield; grandchildren and step grandchildren Eleanor L. Putnam-Farr, Keith C. Putnam Delaney, Margaret D. Putnam Delaney, Sara and Jennifer Putnam, Hale Alexander Talbot (Aki Kamozawa), Meredith Studioso (Brian), Russell Dale Broman, Graham and Flynn Vickowski; and assorted nieces, nephews and great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at the Barney Carriage House at Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturday, December 27 from 1-3 p.m. Another service will be held in Flagstaff, Arizona sometime in 2015.
In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to any of these organizations:
- Lowell Observatory, 1400 W. Mars Hill Rd., Flagstaff, AZ 86001
- Roger and Caroline Putnam Scholarship, Holyoke Community College Foundation, 303 Homestead Ave., Holyoke, MA 01040
- Mount Washington Observatory, P.O. Box 2310, North Conway, NH 03860