You've probably heard the term "Renaissance man" - indicating a person known for great skills and achievements in many of the arts and sciences.

John P. Schaefer makes some so-called Renaissance men look like slackers.

Schaefer - with almost uncountable grand-scale accomplishments in fields ranging from teaching and university administration to astronomy, photography and community leadership - recently was honored with a Founders' Award from the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

And here's the thing: At the age of 75, he might just be starting to peak.

Still going full bore on a monster list of professional and personal projects, Schaefer - so far at least - is:

• An accomplished educator with a Ph.D. in chemistry who served on the University of Arizona faculty for 21 years.

• A former head of the UA department of chemistry and dean of the College of Liberal Arts.

• President emeritus of the UA, where he served as president from 1971-1982 and played a major role in creating the Pac 10 Conference.

• An acclaimed photographer with many books of photography and magazine photo layouts to his credit.

• The founder - along with photography legend Ansel Adams - of the UA's renowned Center for Creative Photography.

• A leader in assembling scientists and funding to create the UA Mirror Lab and associated telescopes.

• A former president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, where he was instrumental in construction of the Large Binocular Telescope - the largest telescope in the world - on Mount Graham near Safford.

• Currently chairman of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Corp., which is building an enormous telescope on a mountaintop in Chile.

• A seemingly tireless community leader who lends his organizational abilities and prestige to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Tucson Museum of Art, and other arts and social service groups.

• A conservationist and avid bird-watcher who helped organize the Tucson Audubon Society and found The Nature Conservancy in Arizona.

• A longtime family man - married to his wife, Helen, since 1958 - and the father of two daughters.

Schaefer is also an avid bicyclist who rode in El Tour de Tucson in November, a maker of finely crafted wooden bowls, a collector of Southwestern art and a lover of classical music.

Does the man ever sleep?

"He's amazing - an absolutely astounding guy," says Bernard "Bunny" Fontana, a historian and writer who has collaborated on books with Schaefer. "He's always thinking, experimenting and doing something new … and the wonderful thing is that he's not just a scientist, but also a humanist."

Today, we take you on a sort of whirlwind tour of the life of this apparently indefatigable human wellspring of hard science, photographic art and much, much else.

Son of immigrants

Schaefer was born in 1934 in New York City of parents who emigrated from Germany in 1929.

"They had a pretty tough time of it as a consequence of the Depression," Schaefer says. "But they believed in the value of education, and they told me to pursue an education. It was great advice."

And Schaefer followed it.

He attended Brooklyn Technical High School and continued his education at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn.

He went on to earn a Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of Illinois and followed up with post-doctoral work at the California Institute of Technology.

"I began teaching at the University of California in Berkeley in 1959 and came to the University of Arizona in 1960," Schaefer says.

But that's all academic.

Much of Schaefer's motivation, his colleagues and friends will tell you, is born of passion - for people, for science, for art.

"I met Helen at the University of Illinois," he says, making it clear he still sees this as a wonderful stroke of good fortune. "She was studying chemistry, too."

Schaefer's passion for being on the cutting edge perhaps explains why an up-and-coming young prof would leave the prestigious UC Berkeley after a year and head for the lesser-known UA.

"I came here because Arizona was putting itself on the map as a state that was on the move," Schaefer says. "The UA was moving to become a regional and national presence. I wanted to be part of that rather than staying at Berkeley."

After teaching and later leading the Chemistry Department and College of Liberal Arts, he was named president of the UA in 1971.

"I became president at a real dynamic time," he says. "I often refer to the '70s as a golden age here."

Others saw that dynamic view reflected in Schaefer's actions as president.

Among them was Roger Angel, regents' professor of astronomy and optical sciences at the UA, where he directs the Steward Observatory Mirror Laboratory and the Center for Astronomical Adaptive Optics.

"When I started off with the Mirror Lab, we wanted to use the then-empty space under the (UA) stadium," Angel recalls. "John was president then, and right away he recognized that this would be a useful thing to do . . . . That support was important. It's one thing to have ideas, but it's another thing to get the support you need."

Looking to the heavens

Schaefer, as his resume makes clear, earned his academic credentials in chemistry - but he went on to become a prime mover in the world of astronomy.

"While I was serving as the head of the chemistry department, there was a Centers of Excellence program (at the university), and astronomy was singled out as one of the departments on the move," Schaefer says. "People were saying: 'Arizona really needs a major telescope.'"

At about the time Schaefer took over as UA president in 1971, scientists were working on an innovative plan to use four one-meter mirrors to focus light on a single point - providing the equivalent of a very large telescope.

"It came together as the multiple-mirror telescope in 1978," Schaefer says. "That provided a new paradigm in astronomy."

And Schaefer was hooked. His enthusiasm for an ever-expanding UA role in astronomy increased, well, astronomically as Angel and colleagues in the Mirror Lab developed a process called spin casting.

"It led to the creation of very large telescope mirrors - 8.4 meters, or about 27 feet across," Schaefer says.

In 1982, just after completing his tenure as UA president, Schaefer became president of the Research Corporation for Science Advancement. In that position, he was a key player in developing the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT) - made up of two 8.4-meter mirrors and designed to look back toward the beginning of time.

"The LBT - not to be confused with the BLT - is almost completed now," Schaefer notes, showing that scientists have a sense of humor - sort of.

Angel says Schaefer played a "pivotal role" in making the LBT a reality.

"When John went to Research Corporation, he really helped the LBT in its early days," Angel says. "That was a critical phase. Without John's help, we might not have the LBT at all."

When the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope Corp. was formed about five years ago to oversee work on a new telescope in Chile, Schaefer once again was star-struck. He came on board as chairman of the corporation.

"I think the LSST is one of the most significant projects in physics and astronomy for the new millennium," Schaefer says of the telescope, which will provide time-lapse digital imaging of faint astronomical objects across the entire sky.

"The LSST will give us the most detailed map of the universe," he says. "It will also give us the orbits of every near-Earth asteroid the size of a football field or bigger - and those are the ones that can spoil your day."

Photographic memories

Many of us dabble in photography, but dabbling doesn't appear to play much of a role in John Schaefer's life.

After experimenting for a few years with a 35 mm camera given to him by his parents, Schaefer began pursuing photography seriously during his years as a graduate student.

"When I became head of the chemistry department, I realized I needed some therapy outside of administration," he says.

Photography served quite nicely.

Schaefer took some courses on the subject and studied the work of master photographers.

"I moved from snapshots to photographs with serious potential," he says.

Editors and publishers took notice.

Schaefer - somehow finding time for serious work with the camera while serving as a university president and champion of astronomy - produced many acclaimed books and magazine layouts.

Some of the books - such as "Of Earth and Little Rain: The Papago Indians," a 1981 collaboration with author Fontana on the Indians now known as the Tohono O'odham - featured documentary photos and portraits of people.

Others - including "A Desert Illuminated: Cactus Flowers of the Sonoran Desert," published in 2008 - not only document the colorful subject but explore the artistic possibilities of photography.

"I'm also a great lover of black-and-white photography," Schaefer says. "I'm using my four-by-five (format) cameras to start taking black-and-white images again" at Saguaro National Park.

The Ansel Adams coup

During his years as UA president, Schaefer got to thinking about libraries and collections.

"I had a great belief in the value of libraries … but I knew that with the libraries at universities like Harvard and Yale, we could never be a 'world power' in that area," he says. "But I also realized the importance of photographs as historic documents,and no university was really collecting this documentation by photography."

Schaefer aimed high, very high - at a man widely regarded as the foremost landscape photographer of his time.

"We invited Ansel Adams to have a one-man show at the university in 1974," Schaefer says.

When Adams arrived for the show, Schaefer struck.

"Being young and naive, I asked him 10 minutes into the show if he might want to leave his archives to the University of Arizona," Schaefer says. "I didn't even take the time to wine and dine him first."

Adams gave it some thought and agreed to talk.

"I went to his home in Carmel (California) in December of 1974 and spent almost a week with him," Schaefer says. "We talked about the possibility of his archive coming here. And we identified other photographers whose great archives might also be assembled. Out of these discussions came the Center for Creative Photography."

The center became a reality in 1975, anchored by the grand black-and-white landscape photographs of Ansel Adams.

"That center is going to be a lasting monument," says author and historian Fontana. "It attracts people from all over the world."

Schaefer and Adams became friends and remained close until Adams' death in 1984.

"I spent a lot of time with him over the years," Schaefer says. "I became one of three trustees of his estate.

"He was certainly the most important conservationist of the 20th century," Schaefer adds. "His photographs did more to stimulate Americans about the importance of wild places than anyone else."

Giving back

Schaefer and his wife have a reputation for stepping up and pitching in as community leaders.

They serve on boards and volunteer their time and prestige to institutions and causes ranging from the Desert Museum and Tucson Symphony to service organizations such as the Handmaker Foundation.

"John Schaefer is an incredible asset to Tucson and has been for a long time," says Jack Camper, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the group that presented a Founders' Award to Schaefer.

"And he's not done," Camper says. "Frankly, I don't think he has peaked yet."

Schaefer himself explains his philanthropic and community work in straightforward terms.

"I grew up poor, and I've been fortunate," he says. "I want to contribute to a rich life for others. It's the importance to me of being part of the human family. You want to make life better for people in any way you can. This may sound lofty, but it's how I feel."

On StarNet: See more photos of John Schaefer at


About 50 of Schaefer's photos - including black-and-white and color images - will be on exhibit at the law offices of Mesch, Clark & Rothschild, 259 N. Meyer Ave.

A spokeswoman for the firm said the show will be open to the public from Wednesday through July. Visitors may view the free show weekdays between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

"I came here because Arizona was putting itself on the map as a state that was on the move. The UA was moving to become a regional and national presence. I wanted to be part of that rather than staying at Berkeley."

John Schaefer, former president of the University of Arizona

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at or at 573-4192.