The Cayman Islands has lost one of its greatest and most dedicated advocates for the sciences. An astronomer, builder, surgeon and visionary, Dr. Bill Hrudey, 76, died Thursday evening, following a brief, incapacitating battle with cancer.
The news of his loss produced an outpouring of condolences from Cayman’s community, where Dr. Hrudey lived and worked for 21 years as a champion and friend of science.
As a renowned solar astronomer, he spearheaded efforts to fund and establish the University College of the Cayman Islands observatory that bears his name.
UCCI President Roy Bodden described his first meeting with Dr. Hrudey as a critical moment for advancing the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics in the islands. At a 2009 meeting for Rotary Club, of which Dr. Hrudey was a member, the scientist fielded the idea of donating a hand-built, 12.5-inch, Newtonian telescope to UCCI. That suggestion would mark the first step toward establishing the Dr. Wm. Hrudey Observatory.
“Dr. Hrudey was a genius and he was driven. He was very understanding and he was very great with the students. He was amiable, personable and he had a vision. And it so happened that our visions were compatible. That’s why we were such a great partnership,” Mr. Bodden said.
“On a personal note, I would like to say that Dr. Hrudey was a source of inspiration to my presidency. He was an adviser. He was a friend of the University College. We were friends to the point that he visited me and I visited him. When there were challenges, he was the first to rally around me and to help me sort those challenges out.”
The university college extended its condolences to Dr. Hrudey’s wife, Gigi, and to his close friends. UCCI is organizing a memorial in his honor. The details are expected to be released later this week.
Dr. Hrudey was often the first to open his wallet for fundraising efforts, Mr. Bodden said, and through his contact network across the Caribbean, he was able to bring together academics and science advocates to build new programs, including the international STEM Carib Conference.
He moved to Cayman in 1997 from Canada, where he had a successful medical career as a surgeon. He was a graduate of the University of Alberta.
Even as he battled with illness, Dr. Hrudey continued his hands-on approach to promoting the sciences. A builder of several world-class telescopes, he had planned to unveil yet another this year. The telescope was designed to take high-resolution images of the sun and would have been the second-largest of its kind in the world. In January, when Dr. Hrudey was named a Member of the British Empire, he said all that was lacking was an upgrade to the telescope’s coding.
The telescope was a larger version of one he had developed, and it reflected his dedication to excellence.
“I wasn’t happy, I wanted more. It’s like when you have a yacht and want it to be two feet longer,” he said in January.
Fellow Cayman Islands Astronomical Society member Richard McLeod described Dr. Hrudey’s passing as “a tremendous loss from the point of view of advancing science because he was the big push behind things.”
Dr. Hrudey was planning an astronomy conference for May. While the status of the conference is now up in the air, Mr. McLeod said the society will work to move forward with the event in his honor.
When longtime friend Lance Parthé learned of Dr. Hrudey’s illness, he dropped his commitments and came to the astronomer’s side, assisting him with doctor’s visits and care in his final days.
“Bill was probably the most intelligent person I’ve ever met. We would spend countless hours in the back of the house designing things, talking about life, philosophy, politics. He was a brilliant man and he built all kinds of things,” Mr. Parthé said.
In addition to building Cayman’s observatory, Dr. Hrudey also used his master woodworking and metalworking skills for a number of other projects, including a model of the Goldfield schooner on display at the Cayman Turtle Centre and a computerized numerical control machine.
“Everything he touched seemed to grow into something bigger,” Mr. Parthé said.
He described Dr. Hrudey as a Carl Sagan figure for his brilliance and his inquisitive nature.
“One thing Bill always said, he didn’t want to believe in things, he wanted to know things,” Mr. Parthé said.
“If there was someone comparable to Carl Sagan in my mind, it was Dr. Bill Hrudey. He always wanted to know what the unknown was.”
Friend and former president of the Cayman Islands Astronomical Society Chris Cooke expressed deep sadness over the loss.
“I first met Bill when he was starting a project to build an observatory for a monster telescope he was already building. Bill without a doubt always thought big and had a doggedness and determination to finish all of the many projects and conferences lined up in his mind,” Mr. Cooke said.
“What impressed me most was that all of those projects had the end goal to promote science in the local community, whether it was schools, the UCCI or the success of the Science Fair.
“He demanded the most from his many friends and supporters, but gave much in return. The Astronomical Society was right behind every project and he in turn helped us.”
Mr. Cooke and Dr. Hrudey were brought together by their shared love of astronomy. Mr. Cooke said that relationship was furthered by his friend’s ability to connect people, including amateur and professional astronomers from Trinidad in partnership with the STEM conference.
In a public Facebook post, friend Lyndhurst Bodden looked back on his 20-year friendship and reflected on the immense loss for the community.
“He will long be remembered for a host of contributions in the field of science, and in particular, for starting the annual Rotary Central Science Fair. In his workshop he constructed some of the most advanced telescopes in the Caribbean, and they are at home in a purpose-built observatory on the campus of the University College of the Cayman Islands,” he said.
“For over 20 years I was fortunate to be able to call him a friend, and I was humbled to be at his side as he peacefully transitioned from this world. Most of you won’t realise the loss our community has just suffered.”
An exhibition of Dr. Hrudey’s solar imaging is currently on display at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. Gallery director Natalie Urquhart said, “The Board and staff of the National Gallery were deeply saddened to hear of Dr. Hrudey’s passing. We were fortunate to collaborate with him on the Solaris exhibition and watch his unwavering commitment to connecting the next generation of young minds to solar digital imagery and STEM subjects. His passion and knowledge inspired us all and it will continue to live on through his work and the observatory that he built for the people of the Cayman Islands.”
The exhibition, “Solaris: Digital Solar Imaging in the Cayman Islands,” will be on display through March 15. The images were captured through Dr. Hrudey’s purpose-built telescope housed at UCCI. The Solar Newtonian telescope built by Dr. Hrudey is the only of its kind in the Caribbean.
Details about Dr. Hrudey’s funeral and memorial service are pending.