William E. Shawcross, 1934-2012

Sky & Telescope’s former publisher, company president, and long-time managing editor has died unexpectedly at age 77.

William E. Shawcross, 1934-2012
S&T: Dennis DiCicco
With the passing of Bill Shawcross on September 3rd, the Sky & Telescope family has lost a key former leader of its close-knit editorial team.

Bill was the last surviving member of the core editorial staff that saw the magazine through its climb to prominence during the dawn of the space age. The others were company founder Charles Federer, Jr., Joseph Ashbrook, and Leif Robinson. Bill joined the magazine in September 1956, fresh from earning an undergraduate degree in physics and astronomy at the University of North Carolina. Later in life he earned advanced degrees in economic botany and anthropology-archaeology. He retired from the magazine in 1991 after more than 35 years on the editorial staff, including a decade serving as Sky Publishing's president.

While Bill’s byline wasn’t as familiar to readers as those of his colleagues, his heavy editorial stamp was on every issue. For decades he was the final reader of every word, including advertisements, appearing between the magazine’s covers. He was a meticulous overseer of the magazine’s style and grammar, as well as being always vigilant that his editorial colleagues checked their facts. He was highly knowledgeable about all aspects of the magazine’s production from the selection of typefaces to the quality of paper and printing. For many years he also managed the magazine’s advertising accounts. And occasionally during the winter you’d find him outside with a snow shovel helping clear the company’s walkways.

Bill’s personal interest in computers (he assembled one of the first Altair 8800 microcomputer kits in the mid-1970s) helped transition the magazine from the days of “hot metal” linotype to the modern age of computerized publishing. In the late 1970s he spearheaded the company’s purchase of an Ohio Scientific (OSI) computer and, along with the programming skills of then assistant editor Roger Sinnott, brought the magazine’s circulation management in-house — an accomplishment so noteworthy for the time that OSI featured Bill and his achievement in its national advertising campaign.

A self-proclaimed graduate of the Darth Vader school of personnel management (the staff was convinced that he graduated summa cum laude), Bill’s often outrageous personality kept editorial meetings anything but predictable. At a time when the company was run more like a family than a corporation, Bill had a rubber chicken and a rubber fish (a red herring) in his desk drawer, ready to be flung at any colleague who gave a half-baked excuse for a missed deadline. (I was a frequent target).

Worried that his family medical history had marked him with a less-than-average lifespan, Bill sought an early retirement from the magazine in 1991 to pursue his many eclectic interests. But he continued to remain in contact with his longtime friends in the company, especially advertising services manager Lester Stockman. “Bill was never one to take a ‘casual’ interest in any subject,” notes Lester. “If he thought something was interesting, he’d pursue it with a passion.” Brewing beer was just one example. When the thought of crafting his own beer caught his fancy, he quickly set up a mini-brewery in his kitchen that was capable of making far more beer than he could ever drink himself. His interests in archaeoastronomy eventually led to a scholarly pursuit of Mayan culture and language, which included multiple trips to ancient sites in Central and South America. His other interests were as far-ranging as figure skating, classical music, and science fiction/fantasy. He was also highly active in Boston’s Buddhist and gay communities.

According to current editor in chief Robert Naeye, who interned at the magazine the summer before Bill retired, “Everyone on the staff is keenly aware of Bill’s years of contributions in so many areas that were instrumental in making S&T’s long-term success possible. They’re particularly noteworthy in light of today’s focus on job specialization.”

Bill’s death is a significant loss for those of us who knew and worked with him for many years, and it closes a chapter on one of the magazine’s most important eras.

4 thoughts on “William E. Shawcross, 1934-2012

  1. pj

    This is sad news. I came across Bill, somehow, on CompuServe message boards in the mid-1980s. I was a whiny little brat and, yet, he answered my questions and responded to my need to discuss astronomy over the web. The correspondence didn’t last long – I’m sure I was probably annoying him – but he answered a lot of questions, gave a lot of encouragement and pushed me to seek others of like-mind who lived closer to me.

    I never again corresponded with him but his communication – adult and to the point but with an obvious wish to encourage and improve – has lasted with me for a long time.

    My condolences to his family and those who knew him.

  2. WH Bonney

    When I cold-called Sky & Telescope in 1982, with a distant hope of getting a job with a magazine I’d been reading since grade school, it was Bill that answered the phone. When he heard my name, he said, "Say, I think we have a check for you." Somehow he remembered that I’d submitted a little cartoon years before, that Sky Publishing had published. (I’d moved a few times in the interim, so my mailing address was no good.) I asked if I could pick up the check in person.

    I had a great 14 years working at S&T. You’ll be missed, Bill.

  3. Chuck Baker

    I met Bill around 1975 while selling records in Harvard Square…he was a music lover like myself. We fast became friends and on Thursday nights, like clockwork, he would come into the shop and hang out. He offered me a job as a graphic artist for a new department at S&T that he was starting to build. During my first year there, I helped in shipping while building the graphic darkroom and layout rooms. and attended graphic arts school in Boston. Bill took the same classes and paid for them. He built a cutting edge graphic arts department that was a complete pre-press platform…a truly remarkable feat! He gave me a chance that I have never forgotten and a career with S&T that lasted for 24 years. Though many people thought of Bill as crude and sometimes hard to deal with, for those of us who knew him up-close and personal, we knew him as kind and gentle and generous. He was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known…he always seemed to be getting a new PHD for this or traveling for study there, and this seemed to intensify after his retirement.
    Bill was quite a character, from his intense tattoos to his published works on Inca studies. I’m proud to have known Bill and I think the world is a little bit better place because of William Shawcross.

  4. Anthony BarreiroAnthony Barreiro

    Thanks for this heartfelt memorial. Bill sounds like a remarkable and inspiring person. My condolences to his friends and loved ones. Watch out for rubber chickens and red herrings from above.

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