GREEN BANK, W.Va. — Nearly a week since receiving the news of the unexpected passing of their coworker and friend, staff of the Green Bank Observatory in Pocahontas County are still processing the loss.
Michael Stennes, 57, of Elkins, died early Sunday morning, after he was struck by a car while bicycling in Massachusetts.
“Certainly everybody is very sad,” said the Observatory’s Director Karen O’Neil. “Mike was a great person to have around, a great friend, a great colleague to have around. Whenever somebody’s life is cut short so unexpectedly there’s always a lot of shock, and I would certainly say as people learned the news over the weekend and Monday, there was a lot of just shock and sadness at his passing.”
Stennes was already employed at Green Bank when O’Neil arrived 16 years ago. She estimates roughly 20 years he spent at the Observatory as a microwave engineer, working on the receiver systems for the telescope.
In layman’s terms, O’Neil said, “What Mike worked on with a number of other engineers on site, is actually developing these very, what we called ‘cooled,’ very sensitive receivers for our telescope, as well as other telescopes around the world.”
Of course that’s an important responsibility when working with the world’s premiere single-dish radio telescope.
“Mike was incredibly important to have on the staff,” O’Neil said. “He was a very creative guy when it came to different components within the receiver system and certainly a very important member of the staff in helping us both build and maintain the receivers, which are some of the critical components on the telescope.”
But Stennes many attributes are limited to his work ethic and knowledge. His coworkers also remember him for his kindness, his generosity and his overall welcoming personality.
“Mike at work was always a very quiet guy. He spoke when he needed to when something was important and was fairly happy to let others speak at other times, but also an incredibly gentle person and very, very nice,” O’Neil said. “He was always, as I’m sure you’d hear from anybody talking about Mike, always very willing to help and always looking for ways he could help out within the work environment, as well as outside the work environment.”
Living in Elkins, Stennes was very involved in the community, particularly when it came to outdoor recreation and athletics.
“Even after kids grew up and moved on, he helped out, for example, with soccer within the county,” O’Neil said. “He was actually my eldest son’s first soccer coach.”
He was an avid lover of sports, running and biking and would take any opportunity available to help out with those types of events in the community, O’Neil said.
“He helped arrange some races in the area, including the Turkey Trot. He always helped out every year with the state bike festival that we have on site called the Space Race Rumpus,” she said. “He certainly is well-known within the Green Bank and the Elkins communities for the work he’s done with biking, road racing, triathlons and all of that.”
The close-knit staff of the Green Bank Observatory is much like a family within itself, and losing one of their own hasn’t been easy. O’Neil said Stennes is already dearly missed.
“He’ll be missed by all of us in Green Bank and all of us in the area too that knew Mike or were touched by Mike in any way,” she said.