Leo Darrold DeWain Heppner, a retired nuclear physicist and avid astronomer who was a co-founder of the Harford County Astronomical Society, died Monday of complications from colon surgery at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air. The longtime Havre de Grace resident was 86.
Mr. Heppner was born in Wilmot, S.D., and raised on his family's farm in Genesee, Idaho. His interest in astronomy began when he was a child and he constructed his first telescope.
He enlisted in the Army during World War II, and served as a sergeant with an infantry unit in Europe.
Taken prisoner during the Battle of the Bulge, Mr. Heppner was repatriated in 1945. He was discharged in 1946, and his decorations included the Bronze Star.
"The war was very emotional for him, and he didn't talk about it. It had a terrible effect on him," said his son, Leo Paul Heppner of Havre de Grace.
After the war, Mr. Heppner enrolled at the University of Idaho, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics on the GI Bill, and then a master's degree in physics from the University of Washington.
A nuclear physicist, Mr. Heppner worked in ballistics for 30 years at Aberdeen Proving Ground. He retired in 1982.
Mr. Heppner maintained a lifelong interest in astronomy and photography, and had been a co-founder in the mid-1970s of the Harford County Astronomical Society.
"He grew up in Idaho, where the skies are truly dark and where you can see the Milky Way from one horizon to the other," said Mark D. Kregel, a longtime friend and member of the astronomical society. "This experience coupled with his religious beliefs gave him a deep appreciation for the beauty and grandeur of nature."
Mr. Kregel said his friend was an excellent astrophotographer, a form of specialized photography used for planets, stars and other celestial bodies.
Larry Hubble, a friend of 25 years, worked with Mr. Heppner for years. "He taught me astrophotography, and we were sort of a team. We did a lot of planetary photography and we were the first [in the United States] to photograph the largest storm ever on Saturn," said Mr. Hubble, who is no relation to Edwin Hubble, in whose honor the Hubble Space Telescope is named. "It was our 15 minutes of fame."
Mr. Heppner enjoyed helping with the monthly open houses held at the astronomical society's observatory at Harford Community College, where he taught children about stargazing and taught astrophotography to students. During the open houses, members of the public were invited to gaze at the heavens through a powerful telescope.
Mr. Kregel recalled that his colleague "loved nurturing" children and sharing his passion for the celestial. "One of his goals was to reach out to the community."
Mr. Hubble remembers feeling overwhelmed when he attended his first meeting of the society.
"I thought I was in way over my head, and Leo took me under his wing and said, 'It's not that tough, and we'll show you what to do. We're a club and here to have fun,'" he said.
Mr. Heppner's son, who became a professional photographer, said his father enjoyed going to Cape Canaveral to watch space shuttle launches.
Mr. Heppner, who took his family on trips to all 50 states, also enjoyed visiting Europe and fine dining, family members said.
His wife of 43 years, the former Lucia Messina, died in 1993.
Mr. Heppner was a member of St. Paul's Lutheran Church, 201 Mount Royal Ave., Aberdeen, where services will be held at 11 a.m. Monday.
Also surviving are two daughters, Louisa Heppner Bowman of Havre de Grace and Marie N. Heppner of Middlebury, Vt.